Americans join the military for many reasons, including protecting our country, access to free job training, job security in a good-paying career, and, of course, awesome educational benefits. In fact, the educational benefits are a huge incentive, especially for those who don’t already have a degree (or a college scholarship to pay for one).
If you’re not super familiar with the military rank structure, most personnel fall in one of two categories — officer or enlisted (note: a small percentage falls into a unique category called warrant officers).
Commissioned officers must have college degrees, and they make up ~18% of the military workforce. The rest of the military is made of enlisted troops who signed up with perhaps little or no college background at all.
Once enlisted, members are generally entitled to Active Duty Tuition Assistance (TA) at some point after their job training is completed. This TA benefit can usually pay for most of the member’s tuition costs, depending on which university they want to attend. Members who complete sufficient time in service also typically qualify for Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, a lucrative entitlement that helps cover tuition and housing costs after a person separates from service.
Not all enlisted members bother to earn a college degree, though. After all, it’s already a challenge to work a full-time job that may require longer-than-average duty hours. Sometimes troops are simply too exhausted or don’t have enough time to sign up for classes due to family commitments, deployments, reassignments, or other obligations.
Still, to the greatest extent possible, enlisted military members should try to earn their college degrees while serving. In fact, we’ve put together a brief list of seven reasons why you should go for your college degree while enlisted!
1. The Military Wants You To Go To College
The military has long used the lure of paid tuition to entice new recruits. But apart from gaining new workers, it’s not like the military branches don’t get something else out of their investment, too!
The fact is, every branch of service wants their troops to be as educated as possible. That may surprise some folks who’ve never spent much time around the military or who stereotype service members as jocks. It is easy to perceive troops as worker bees who just follow orders. But truth be told, military jobs are often highly technical, administratively demanding, and require a well-educated, well-trained workforce.
To get their missions accomplished, every branch of service needs a smart enlisted force able to think critically and perform duties requiring a high degree of skill. Whether they are stationed at home or deployed abroad in a hazardous area, every enlisted Soldier, Sailor, Marine, Airman, and Guardian must operate at the top of their game at all times.
2. A College Degree Can Help Get You Promoted
Every military member receives formal, written performance feedback from their supervisor on a recurring basis. These formal reports play a significant role in determining whether that member qualifies for a promotion in rank or not.
Members are rated on a variety of factors, with each branch of service using its own form of assessment criteria. One variable, you may have guessed, is the members’ education and training! Taking college classes after duty hours shows great initiative and a desire to excel. That helps troops earn higher ratings on their performance reports.
In particular, for troops who want to enter noncommissioned officer ranks, it is valuable to have some college classes knocked out (note: noncommissioned officers are still enlisted members; they are NOT part of the officer corps, so don’t be confused by the phrasing).
In fact, the Air Force’s Enlisted Force Structure handbook states that, as part of their responsibilities, every Senior Noncommissioned Officer will “complete an associate’s degree through a nationally or regionally accredited academic institution, if not already earned…”
The handbook further directs Senior Noncommissioned Officers to “continue development for self and subordinates through available education, leadership lectures and seminars, and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force Reading List.” So there it is in black and white! The military (at least the Air Force) directs its enlisted leadership to pursue higher ed and to encourage junior members to get educated. They even make sure there are consequences if that doesn’t happen!
To be eligible for a promotion to the rank of Senior Master Sergeant (SMSgt) in the Air Force, “MSgts [Master Sergeants] must complete an associate degree or higher from a nationally or regionally accredited academic institution, if not already earned, to become eligible for promotion to SMSgt.” In other words, it’s mandatory to get at least an AA or AS degree if you expect to get promoted beyond a certain point (and that Yes or No status is clearly marked on a block on their performance report). Holding a bachelor’s or master’s makes the person even more competitive for promotion consideration.
3. College Credits Help You Apply For Commissioning Programs
Sometimes enlisted troops want to become commissioned officers so they can assume greater responsibilities, earn better pay, and lay the foundation for long-term goals after they separate from service.
It’s not easy, but it is possible for enlisted members with enough college credits or who’ve finished their degrees to apply for commissioning programs. Commissioning programs for enlisted troops with degrees include short training courses lasting only a few weeks, such as:
- Army Officer Candidate School (OCS)
- Navy Officer Candidate School (OCS)
- Air Force Officer Training School (OTS)
- Marine Officer Candidates School (OCS)
For those who have sufficient college credits but haven’t graduated yet, there are longer, in-college training programs that take years, such as:
- Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC)
- Navy and Marines Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC)
- Air Force and Space Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC)
While most cadets in ROTC units are not “prior service” personnel, a select few are thanks to programs that allow enlisted troops to separate from service so they can attend college ROTC full-time. After graduation and subsequent commissioning, they can then re-enter the military as officers.
4. College Makes Military Members More Well-Rounded…And Better At Their Jobs!
Many people appreciate the standalone value of a college education without viewing the degree as just a stepping stone to another objective. In other words, they want to learn for the sake of learning or to become a better-informed citizen. So while a degree can help you advance in your military career, that doesn’t have to be the end goal.
The military does not tell enlisted members what to major in; they are free to explore subjects that truly interest them. That said, let’s imagine you’re enlisted and want your degree to help with a promotion. In that case, it can be beneficial if your degree (or at least the minor or associates) relates to your career field in some way.
For instance, the Army Credentialing and Continuing Education Services for Soldiers (ACCESS) program’s purpose is “to provide enlisted Soldiers and warrant officers a clear pathway to completing an Associate or Bachelor’s degree in their assigned discipline, technical field or leadership to assist in the development of technically competent and critical thinking leaders.”
ACCESS partners with multiple colleges to link different Army enlisted careers to related college degree programs. Soldiers may also be able to receive college transfer credits for certain completed training. Our Military Friendly Schools List features additional details on obtaining college credit for military training.
The Community College of the Air Force (CCAF), under the authority of Air University, can actually grant associate degrees to Airmen. CCAF makes it very easy to apply Basic Military Training, technical school training, and other Professional Military Education (PME) coursework directly towards the associate degree, which can pave the way for a bachelor’s.
Meanwhile, the Air University Associate-to-Baccalaureate Cooperative program “establishes partnerships between Air University and civilian institutions” to offer CCAF holders easy access to online bachelor degree opportunities.
If you want to pursue a degree to qualify for a commissioning program, keep in mind that technical majors are more highly sought after than liberal arts studies. The military mission definitely requires STEM grads who can fill critical workforce roles.
Regardless of your reasons for pursuing a degree while enlisted, you’re guaranteed to take away many intangible benefits that will help round out your perspectives on many topics!
5. You Can Save or Give Your GI Bill To Your Spouse or Kids
The military’s Tuition Assistance (TA) is a major financial benefit and can be used as long as the member is actively serving. Once you’re out, the TA benefits stop, but luckily it’s only one of the educational benefits you can qualify for. The other big educational benefit is the GI Bill, which technically can be used while on Active Duty, but is normally reserved for use after you get out of the service.
The thing is, why wait until you separate to take classes? Why use your GI Bill benefit — which is extremely flexible and can be used for many things — when you can earn your degree (or degrees) before getting out, and let TA pay for it all!
Perhaps one of the best reasons to finish your degree while on Active Duty is so you can pass on your Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to your spouse or children if you have any. The previous version of the GI Bill (the Montgomery GI Bill) could not be transferred, but the newer iteration (and the follow-up “Forever GI Bill”) can be shared.
Even if you aren’t married or have kids, it’s wise to save that GI Bill money. The GI Bill benefit comes with a housing stipend, which is very handy if you’re worried about making ends meet while going to college.
Not everyone has the time to finish their bachelor’s or master’s before they get out, but the more you can get done using TA, the more of your GI Bill you can use, or save, for other things later.
6. A College Degree Helps You Qualify For Better Civilian Jobs
You will eventually retire or leave the military. Transitioning from the military back into the civilian job sector is one of the hardest things many Veterans ever have to do. And the longer you spend in the service, the tougher the change can be.
Not all military jobs readily equate to a civilian counterpart, and sometimes people who get out don’t want to keep doing the same ol’ type of work anyhow. Earning a degree while you are enlisted can pave the way for more career opportunities and more lucrative job offers.
Of course, the hectic nature of military life can make it hard to complete your full degree while on Active Duty. But at least try to lay the foundation by completing credits in general education courses and electives. The bulk of your efforts should be reserved for your major area of study, especially if you’re planning to earn a degree to qualify for a particular civilian industry.
O*Net Online offers a helpful tool called the “Military Crosswalk” that lets you look up your military job and find civilian job equivalents. Once you find a suitable match, the site deep dives into that civilian career field by listing in-depth details on the job duties, tools used, skills needed, educational requirements, and related occupations. Then once you know what you’re looking for, you can use Universities.com’s college match tool to search for schools by major, price, location, or eight other filters to “Find Your Perfect U”.
To find employers actively recruiting military members who are transitioning into the civilian world, visit G.I.Jobs.com!
7. You’d Be Throwing Away Free Money Not To Do It
If someone offered you free money, would you take it? What if they offered you something other than cash, but that still had a value worth thousands of dollars?
A college degree is a valuable commodity that you will keep for the rest of your life. If the military is willing to pay for it, why wouldn’t you accept? Of course, you have to invest your time and energy into taking the classes, but consider how many college students would love to trade places and have their tuition paid for?
US News notes that the average cost of in-state tuition and fees at ranked public universities is $10,338 a year for students attending full-time. A private university averages $38,185.
Considering an enlisted military member would only be able to attend part-time, it might take seven years or more to finish a traditional 120-credit hour, “four-year” bachelor’s program. A part-time master’s degree may take two or three years to complete.
The TA program covers $250 per semester hour or $4,000 – $4,500 per fiscal year (figures vary based on the branch of service and other factors). TA can pay for classes leading to an associate, bachelor’s, or master’s degree.
So, if an enlisted member used TA to pay for a bachelor’s that took seven years to finish (going part-time), they could potentially receive up to $31,500 in free tuition. Add a master’s, and you could get up to an extra $13,500 in TA benefits. In total, that’s up to $45,000 in free college money, without ever touching your GI Bill. Clearly, TA is not a benefit anyone should throw away lightly!