FORT KNOX, Kentucky (Sept. 20, 2016) -- A new online decision support tool is providing Soldiers across the Army information that can save them time and money in the long term, by helping them identify academic programs that most closely align to their interests and goals today.
Known as VIA, indicating a path or course forward, the software package was introduced to the field in December 2015 by U.S. Army Human Resources Command's Army Continuing Education Division (ACED). It is an online system that compiles an inventory of a Soldier's interests, career goals, educational preferences and capabilities, runs them through a series of analytic matrices, and provides recommendations for consideration.
The aim is to help Soldiers take a smart look at their options before electing the pathways that offer the best fit and best value in meeting their professional and personal goals, said ACED program analyst Ela Karczewska.
"We believe a better informed Soldier will make better decisions," she said.
VIA is now mandatory before electing to request Tuition Assistance (TA) through GoArmyEd. Soldiers presently enrolled in courses of study may use VIA as a tool to reassess and adjust their programs, and those who have yet to elect how to apply their TA benefit can log in and explore to consider options that might work best for them, said Karczewska.
The matrix that matches career goals with possible degree programs was developed by the Departments of Labor and Education, and references only institutions and programs that have signed a governing memorandum of understanding with the Department of Defense, said Karczewska.
"We wanted to make sure the information we provided to Soldiers is valid," she said.
"A lot of times the decision-making process is backward," said Patti Talbort, ACED deputy chief.
"Left to themselves Soldiers tend to decide where they want to go to school first, sign up and then open up a course catalog and try to figure out what they are going to study. With VIA it's a little different. The program is set up in such a way that they focus first on the outcome they want to achieve and then work back from there on the best educational fit for getting there," she said.
The process can take as little as 20 minutes, but most first-timers spend 30 to 40 minutes inputting information and considering recommendations, said Karczewska. Students, and would-be students, can review, tweak and re-run VIA to compare career goals and the choice of particular schools as they think through their path forward.
And they are not bound to the results, she said. VIA is a non-binding, first step in coming to an informed decision.
"VIA is an adjunct to the counseling process," said Karczewska. "It does not lock them into a particular recommendation. Soldiers can opt out, talk to a counselor, come back to VIA and reconsider their possibilities."
Once a Soldier has elicited a minimum of three system generated recommendations, they can compare them, make adjustments and, when they are ready to discuss their proposal with a counselor, submit their plan via GoArmyEd. The counselors have access to the Soldier's VIA recommendations, which serve as the beginning of a conversation about constructing an academic program with the prospective student, said Talbort.
Once the counselor approves the selection, the Soldier can apply for classes via GoArmyEd. VIA is available for use by Soldiers across all components, active, Reserve and National Guard.
"We were very excited at the data from the first six months of VIA," said ACED chief, Dr. Pamela Raymer. "VIA is proving to be a valuable tool for Soldiers in helping them make better choices for degrees and schools."
Soldiers have logged into VIA some 89,000 times and about 25,000 of those sessions have been with first-time TA users, Karczewska said.
Survey results indicate 87 percent of Soldiers selected career goals generated by VIA, she noted. In addition, 80 percent opted for selected VIA recommended degree programs, and 83 percent selected VIA recommended schools or programs, indicating recommendations are resonating with Soldiers.
In addition, responses gathered from a program based survey that launches after a Soldier completes VIA show that more than 60 percent of Soldiers using TA for the first time stated VIA helped them make a more informed decision about their career degree and school goals.
Those are pretty high marks for the program's "first semester," she said.
Karczewska noted there has been a significant uptick in the percentage of Soldiers who actually register for a program after working with a counselor, rising from 35 percent in the three months before adoption to 49 percent.
"VIA is off to a good start in pointing Soldiers in the right direction and reducing false starts. That can save Soldiers time, money and frustration by setting them on a path to success from the get-go," said Raymer.
"And we are hoping there will be fewer and fewer degree and school changes," she said.
Karczewska said there has also been an increase in the selection of programs based in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects — with concentrations in the health sciences, information technology and engineering — and away from general studies, business careers and protective careers such as criminal justice, homeland security and law enforcement.
"These are degrees they may not have thought of before VIA, and have higher employment potential when Soldiers are preparing for civilian careers," she said.
"I commend the ACED team for developing and fielding VIA to benefit our Soldiers and our Army," said Brig. Gen. James T. Iacocca, The Adjutant General of the U.S. Army.
"While there has been some institutional resistance to this new way of doing business, VIA has proven most useful to Soldiers seeking voluntary education. The Army Voluntary Education Program helps Soldiers enrich their lives and reach their full potential, and VIA helps to find the best program for them," he said.