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How does joining the military help pay for college?

December 11, 2018

Veterans, active-duty, and reserve service members enjoy a variety of benefits, programs, and resources to help them transition to civilian life. One of the most popular benefits is assistance with education. Being an active-duty service member or veteran not only entitles you to a variety of scholarships, but also loans, grants, and funding programs.


Even if you’ve already attended college, enrolling in the military after earning your degree could result in a higher rank and assistance in paying back your student loans. The following are just a few benefits and ways that joining the military can help you pay for college:


  • Tuition assistance programs for enlisted, active duty, reservists, and veterans

  • College loan repayment programs for previous loans

  • Loan forgiveness programs

  • Deferred payments while on active duty

  • Capped interest for previous student loans through the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act


In addition to the programs listed above, students who enroll in ROTC programs all four years of college can also earn a full scholarship and have the opportunity to join a branch of the military after graduation.


Tuition Assistant Programs

Tuition assistance programs vary. Depending on which branch of the military you enlist in, the structure of the program and the amount of assistance may differ.


The GI Bill

The GI Bill was originally started after World War II to provide benefits that help service members transition to civilian life. Today, the GI benefit remains one of the most popular ways to fund college education for military service members. The Montgomery GI Bill provides up to $1,500 of assistance per month, but you are required to enroll in the program and pay a $100 monthly enrollment fee. The program typically provides 36 months of assistance.


The Post 9/11 GI Bill is for service members discharged on or after September 11, 2001. After completing active service, you have 36 months of assistance, which should cover an undergraduate degree. For full-time students, the benefits of the Post 9/11 GI Bill include:


  • Monthly Housing Allowance (MHA) up to $2,700 based on location and service length

  • Up to $1,000 annually for books, depending on student enrollment status

  • ~$19,000 granted annually for tuition, some state requirements are higher/lower


If you’re planning to use the GI Bill to pay all of your college tuition and fees, you’ll likely be limited to a school where you qualify as an “in-state” resident. In most cases, out-of-state and private school tuition exceeds the GI Bill’s annual tuition cap, but with scholarships and other financial aid programs for service members, it may be possible. Universities that participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program may offer additional benefits that make private and out-of-state institutions more affordable. Benefits for part-time students are also available but may be limited.


To qualify for the GI Bill, you must have at least 90 days on active-duty with an honorable discharge or at least 30 days if you are discharged with a service-related disability. It’s also important to note that in most cases you’ll be required to sign up for eight years of military service, with the most common arrangement being four years of active duty and four years reserve.


The maximum time you can enroll in both the Montgomery and Post 9/11 GI Bill programs is 48 months. In most cases, the Montgomery benefits are used for 36 months, at which time service members are eligible for one additional year of Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits.


Other Tuition Assistance Programs

The GI Bill is used at the completion of service, but there are other tuition assistance programs for active military. Some roles offer a set schedule and location making it possible to attend school while enlisted. For these service members, completing your degree while fulfilling your service requirements is a real possibility.


Up to $4,500 of tuition assistance is available each year for active duty and reserve military service members. The assistance can be used to cover up to 100% of tuition. Through the “Top Up” supplement program, service members may receive additional assistance to cover fees.


Military Student Loan Repayment Assistance

In addition to offering tuition assistance to students who enroll in the military, if you earn a degree and find yourself saddled with student loan debt, the military offers programs that can help. The Air Force, Navy, Army, Marines, and National Guard offer loan repayment programs for active duty service members and reservists with past student loan debt. Eligible service members can receive up to $120,000 towards repayment of federal student loans.



Military Student Loan Forgiveness Programs

In addition to repayment assistance, the military offers student loan forgiveness programs, which eliminate student loan debt. There are loan forgiveness programs for service members in imminent danger, as well as those who have a service-related disability. Also, members of the military qualify for one of the most popular loan forgiveness program, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF) if they meet the service requirement. The PSLF forgiveness program forgives the remaining loan balance after ten years of public service and 120 monthly payments.


Deferred Payments

All service members are eligible for deferred payments on federal student loans while on active duty. Though most of the benefits mentioned above apply only to federal student loans, deferred payments for active duty service members are also offered by most private student loan lenders.


Are dependents eligible for military benefits?

College students with a mother or father that has served in the military may wonder if they are eligible for military benefits. While there are many scholarships for dependents of veterans, military benefits are limited to service members, with one exception. Service members may transfer a portion of their GI benefits to their spouse or child.  Children of active service members who died in the line of duty on or after September 11, 2001 are eligible for the Fry Scholarship, which offers similar benefits to the GI Bill.


Concerns About Enlisting in Military to Pay for College

With great benefit comes high risk, and the military is no exception. Most people sign up for at least eight years in the military, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll have the opportunity to attend college while enlisted. The following are some things you should consider before joining  the military, particularly if your primary motivation is paying your college tuition:


  • Loss of freedom

  • Possible interruptions to plan of study due to deployment or relocation

  • Mental health concerns, including PTSD

  • Possibility of injury, permanent disability, or loss of life


Should I join the military to pay for college?

Joining the military is an important decision that comes with its own set of risks, including loss of control over your schedule and a long time commit that can be extended. It’s vital that you understand the full requirements of military service before considering the military as a way to fund your college education. If you have any doubts, you should speak with a veteran or military recruitment officer. The financial aid office at the school you want to attend is also a valuable resource to help you fund your college education.