There are several military programs that help service members pay for college. In most cases, you commit to serving for a period of time and, in exchange, the Military pays for your education. The average commitment is four years on Active Duty, plus four years in the Individual Ready Reserve (this means you are not actively serving but could be called back, if necessary). The Military provides a huge range of educational opportunities to service members to study before, during and after their military commitment.
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Before Military Service
Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC)
Founded in 1916, ROTC is a college program offered at more than 1,700 colleges and universities across the United States that prepares young adults to become officers in the Military. In exchange for a partially or fully paid college education and a guaranteed post-college career, ROTC students commit to serve in the Military after graduation (generally four years of Active Duty).
It's also possible to do a year or two of ROTC simply for the great leadership experience but without service commitment (unless you received a scholarship). The Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force each offer their own ROTC program. The Coast Guard doesn't offer ROTC, but they do have a College Student Pre-Commissioning Initiative (CSPI) scholarship program for college sophomores and juniors.
ROTC programs (Today's Military)
Military Career Stories: From ROTC to Surface Operations Officer (Today's Military)
Service Academies and Senior Military Colleges
Students who would like to experience a military environment while getting an education should be aware of the opportunities that a Senior Military College (SMC) or Service academy can offer. They are widely respected and provide first-class instruction.
Service academies offer full four-year scholarships, and SMCs offer financial aid packages for eligible students. Both also offer pay for books, board and medical and dental care. In exchange for such benefits, graduates become commissioned officers and are required to uphold a service obligation of a minimum of five years. Those who attend SMCs can choose whether or not they want to serve, but recipients of ROTC scholarships will be required to serve after graduation.
Service Academies and Senior Military Colleges (Today's Military)
During Military Service
Tuition Support provides service members the opportunity to enroll in courses at accredited colleges, universities, junior colleges and vocational-technical schools. Each Service branch has unique programs that can help with tuition for anything from professional certifications to a graduate degree. To qualify, there are usually conditional requirements, such as having a minimum time remaining on your service contract and a cap on credit hours (or dollars) per year. Some programs also require that you attend a school from a designated list.
Paying for College (Today's Military)
The Military administers tests that can earn you college credit for skills you've acquired during military training and operations. The College Level Equivalency Program (CLEP) exam and Defense Activity for Non-traditional Education Support (DANTES) tests are available to all active-duty, Guard and Reserve personnel. The testing is available at a discount and is divided up into the following:
- CLEP Exams: Most tests are designed to replace one-semester courses, but some correspond to full-year or two-year courses. There are 33 exams that fall into five categories: composition and literature, world languages, history and social sciences, science and mathematics, and business. For every one of these exams that you pass, you receive three hours of college credit, though six or 12 hours are also possible. Passing just one CLEP subject exam can save you hundreds of dollars on college courses and countless hours.
- DANTES Subject Standardized Test (DSST): The DSST program is a series of examinations in various college subjects. Similar to CLEP exams, passing a DSST also earns you college credit.
Community College of the Air Force (CCAF)
The Community College of the Air Force (CCAF) is an accredited two-year college open to enlisted Airmen. The CCAF offers nearly 71 different associate degree programs in many scientific and technical fields including computer science technology, avionic systems technology, air and space operations technology, allied health sciences, paralegal services, information management and more.
Every CCAF degree requires courses in your technical job specialty, leadership/management/military studies, general education and physical education. You can accumulate credits while you're on active duty at Air Force technical training schools and when you enroll in colleges near your duty station that offer accredited courses. Enlisted members of the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve are also eligible to participate in the CCAF. The school also awards credit for exams offered by DANTES, CLEP and the Defense Language Institute.
CCAF (official site)
Military School Credits
You can potentially earn college credits simply by completing Basic Training, otherwise known as "boot camp."
After Basic Training, the advanced job training the Military gives you—sometimes called "A" school or Advanced Individual Training (AIT) —can also count for college credit. In short, you can earn college credit as you receive training for your military assignment.
The American Council on Education (ACE) regularly visits many military schools to grant accreditation. Note that not every military school is accredited. Be sure to ask a recruiter whether the school that would train you offers college credits, and if so, which specific courses offer them.
If your military training school doesn't offer college credit, it may offer certification in a specialized technical field instead. Many national trade associations recognize military certification tests. So, if you choose not to re-enlist, passing a certification exam helps you transition to your civilian career right away, without having to go through a long training period at lower pay.
Certification testing is available in the fields of automotive, computing, electronics, management, broadcast engineering, emergency medical technician, medical technology and food preparation, among many others. Ask a recruiter for details about certification.
Loan Repayment Programs
The Army and Navy offer loan repayment programs that help enlisted personnel pay off college loans accrued prior to service. While each program has unique processes and requirements, they're all enlistment incentives designed to help recent college graduates manage education debt. Make sure to ask a recruiter about eligibility requirements to see if you qualify.
Paying for College (Today's Military)
After Military Service
Post-9/11 GI Bill
The Post-9/11 GI Bill is the most comprehensive education-benefits package since the original GI Bill was signed into law back in 1944. Veterans who have served after Sept. 10, 2001, and all new active-duty service members are eligible for the enhanced package. The new bill also gives Reserve and Guard members who have been activated for more than 90 days since 9/11 the same benefits.
Different factors play into how much each service member receives from the Post-9/11 GI Bill. These factors include:
- College tuition and fees payment
- Housing allowance
- Allowance for books and supplies ($1,000 per year)
The actual benefit amount varies based on a service member's total length of service. However, these benefits are payable for up to 15 years following a member's honorable discharge or retirement from service. So, you can use them right away, or save them for later—it's your choice.
In addition, the Department of Defense offers the option of sharing these benefits with family members. A service member can choose to transfer all or part of his or her earned benefits to a wife, husband or child (including stepchildren).
Post-9/11 GI Bill (Veterans Affairs)
The GI Bill Kicker
With the exception of the Coast Guard, each Service branch has college fund programs; however, the incentives and amount received vary with each branch. These programs are offered to service members when they first join the Military. Two mandatory qualifications:
- You must have a high school diploma.
- You must be enrolled in the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
Depending on your Service, test scores and occupation, there may also be additional requirements. Talk to a recruiter to find out if you are eligible and to ask for an application.
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