Recently I was chatting with a fellow veteran about career plans. During the conversation, he mentioned that he hadn’t completed his AA degree, and he thought that was holding him back. It turns out that he is only three classes short of his degree—and two of those are math classes.

This is not uncommon. In fact, when I was a college advisor, math was probably the subject that students were most reluctant to sign up for, especially those, like veterans, who had been out of school for some time. Even if students had no hesitancy about signing up for math, I discovered that other advisors often encouraged student veterans to wait a semester or two before starting their math requirements, and often even encouraged them to fill their first semester with electives.

Whether it’s the student’s or the advisor’s idea, delaying math classes for student veterans is a mistake (taking a first semester full of electives is even worse) and here’s why:

  • VA only pays for required classes. Most credit for military service comes in as electives. Additionally, if you previously took classes at another college, especially in a different degree—say you thought you wanted to be a nurse and now you want to be a marketing major—those will often come in as electives as well. However, colleges don’t always finish evaluating your previous transcripts for transfer credit in your first semester. Therefore, if you take a bunch of electives first semester and then your transcripts don’t get evaluated until second semester and it turns out you didn’t actually need those first semester electives, you have to pay VA back. If you’re a Post-9/11 GI Bill user, that means paying back tuition, fees, books, and housing!
  • It can delay your degree completion date. Math classes, especially preparatory math classes, build on each other. Meaning, you often can’t take more than one at a time. In the college I worked at, if you tested at the lowest level, you had to complete four college prep math classes before you ever got to one that counted towards a degree requirement. If you can only take one a semester, that’s almost two years before you even get to one that “counts!” Additionally, if you are using VA education benefits, you may run out of benefits before you get to the required, college level math classes.
  • It could prevent you from graduating at all. Just like the veteran I mentioned above, if you avoid taking the math classes, you may get to the end of the degree and realize that’s all you have left and simply give up. You are unlikely to be more motivated to take math in your final semester than you were in your first semester. Tackle it early and, when that senioritis hits, you can fill your final semester with classes you love and, if you have any room, electives, rather than trying to force yourself to face your least favorite, and potentially most challenging, subject.
  • It can impact your BAH. If you have multiple prep classes to take before you get to college level math, then here’s what often happens: You take a prep class each semester while you also take the other classes required for your degree. You get four semesters in and you have finally completed all of your prep classes…but you’ve also completed all of your other required classes. Since VA only pays for required classes, that leaves you with two options: take only a math class, which isn’t enough to get BAH, or attempt two college level math classes at the same time and add in two other classes for your “fill in” term in order to get full BAH and complete your degree. The first option leaves you without BAH that you may have been depending on, while the second leaves you doubling up on your least favorite subject, while also taking a full schedule just to get all your BAH. Neither scenario generally turns out well.

Now, while I am clearly encouraging you to start your math early, I’m not recommending that you jump in cold turkey. Math, like other skills, atrophies if you don’t use it and, chances are good, you haven’t solved for X or tried to determine a cosine in years. Therefore, a little refresher is probably in order—ideally before you leave the service. Below are a couple of options for resources to help you get back in the math groove:

  • Purple Math. This is a resource recommended by a friend of mine who is a professional tutor. It offers links to various sites that offer free lessons and practice quizzes for 5th grade through college level math review, as well as standardized test prep.
  • Tutor.com for Military Families. This site allows for live, one-on-one tutoring 24 hours a day for Active Duty, Active Guard and Reserve, and eligible dependents. Each branch has different eligibility criteria, so click on your service branch (or your sponsor’s service branch) to see who qualifies.
  • Khan Academy. Another free resource recommended by my tutor friend. This one doesn’t just offer help with college prep math, but also offers free help with college level math as well.
  • Veterans Upward Bound. VUB is a free program, sponsored by the Department of Education, to help prepare low-income and first generation veterans for college by offering prep courses in math, computer literacy, and other topics. Click on the “VUB Program Locator” in the top left corner of the site to find the closest location.
  • eKnowledge. Thanks to the generosity of pro athletes, eKnowledge offers ACT/SAT prep courses for a very reduced rate ($15 instead of hundreds for the standard SAT program, for example). These courses offer refreshers and practice in math, as well as vocabulary, reading comprehension, and basic test-taking skills.
  • ACCUPLACER App. This free app provides assistance with math and reading related skills needed for college placement exams (the tests that will decide which math class you start in) and can be accessed for your computer, tablet, or SmartPhone. (Note: You have to add this to your "cart" and "checkout" but that does not require entering your credit card info. It does require adding an address and e-mail address and then the link for the app arrives in your e-mail.)

These are just a few of the resources out there. Colleges and state veteran organizations also often offer student veteran college prep solutions.

Know of any other useful resources? Feel free to mention them in the comment box below.