One question active duty soldiers often ask regarding military education benefits:
“Will the military pay for me to earn my college degree online before I leave the service?”
The answer: Yes.
“The way things are set up, almost any serviceperson should be able to get at least an associate degree while on active duty, because of the Military Tuition Assistance,” says Manfred F. Meine, professor of public administration at Troy University in Fort Walton Beach, Florida.
Military Tuition Assistance (TA) is a Department of Defense program for active-duty military soldiers and personnel.
While provisions differ between branches of service, in TA provides benefits in general cover up to $250 per credit hour, with a maximum of $4,500 per year. Using these benefits active duty soldiers can potentially get a free college degree online while serving in the military.
“A lot of soldiers don’t know they can get Tuition Assistance if they are on active duty—they think they have to utilize the GI Bill,” says Louis Martini, director of military education at Thomas Edison State College in New Jersey.
Military Tuition Assistance should always be used first, before a servicemember even thinks about touching his or her GI Bill tuition benefits, advises Jim Sweizer, vice president of military programs at American Military University.
“It’s there: you use it or you lose it. It’s basically free money,” says Sweizer.
Enlisted servicemembers, he says, do not need to pay back any Military Tuition Assistance dollars. (Officers, on the other hand, face "active-duty service obligations"—meaning they have to serve two years from the end of their last TA-funded course, or else repay some or all of the course tuition.)
Don't Use Your GI Bill if Military Tuition Assistance is Available Instead
While working in a previous job as a military education policymaker at the Pentagon, Sweizer says he often spoke with veterans who called in, upset to the point of tears, because they wanted to go back to school but they had exhausted their GI Bill benefits. Many of these veterans had used their GI Bill benefits while on active duty, unaware they could have used the government’s free Tuition Assistance program instead.
“It’s a wonderful program,” says Sweizer. “Most of the enlisted force who are going to school pretty much rely on the TA program because it covers just about everything.”
However, at least one military enlistee isn’t using Military Tuition Assistance while on Active Duty because he found applying for it to be too much hassle.
James Newcomb is an Army sergeant assigned to Fort Knox, Kentucky, who is working on an online bachelor’s degree in government at Regent University.
Newcomb, 32, says he found the Tuition Assistance program to be “a really cumbersome experience,” full of “red tape and bureaucracy.” So, he is tapping into his GI Bill benefits to pay for his distance college degree.
Sweizer disagrees with Newcomb’s assessment of TA.
“It’s not cumbersome,” he says. “The military services have gone out of their way to make applying for TA extremely easy.”
In the past, military personnel had to go in person to educational centers to sign up for TA. But today, says Sweizer, “You don’t have to go to educational centers—you can do it online.”
Consider Grants, Scholarships Before Tapping GI Bill Tution Money
If online military students do wind up having more expenses than TA will cover, they should look into service-specific grants, scholarships and other private financial aid programs before tapping into their GI Bill benefits, advises Sweizer.
“There are financial aid sources out there, other than the federal government.”
For leads on online military education benefits, scholarships, and private financial aid programs, consult GetEducated’s financial aid page for online military students.