Should I Join the Military to Get College Paid For?

Written by Matt Cates
Published on December 4, 2022 · Updated on May 28, 2023

Should I Join the Military to Get College Paid For?

Written by Matt Cates
Published on December 4, 2022 · Updated on May 28, 2023

Young people join the military for a wide range of personal reasons. Some are looking for an opportunity to get paid job training so they can start a long-term career. Others are enticed by the chance to move away from home and add some adventure to their lives. 

One of the biggest, most universal draws for joining the military is the promise of free college tuition. Indeed, the service branches have long been aware that paying for college is a powerful way to attract new recruits. So how does that work exactly, and should you join the military just to get your college paid for? 

The answer can be tricky and depends greatly on your long and short-term goals! 

Officer versus Enlisted

Seems like a simple question — “Should I join the military to get college paid for?” But that question actually raises more questions to think about first. 

Let’s start by assuming you aren’t familiar with military hierarchy. Even if you are, keep reading, because the devil’s in the details...

Virtually every person who serves in a military branch of service is either a commissioned officer or an enlisted member. The distinction is important for many reasons, including educational ones. 

What is an enlisted military person?

Enlisted personnel make up the bulk of the military. Per the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the enlisted force comprises ~82% of the whole military, with the rest being officers (or warrant officers, but let’s not worry about that category now). 

Enlisted troops can essentially be described as the “worker bees” of the military, whereas officers are the primary leaders and managers. That is an oversimplification, of course. Enlisted members can also serve in management and leadership roles. However, the highest-ranking enlisted person will be officially a subordinate to even the most junior officer. That’s just the way the chain of command works. 

A primary distinction between enlisted personnel and commissioned officers is — officers must be college graduates.

There are other qualification criteria for both officers and enlisted (such as medical physicals and passing training), but for the sake of this article, the college degree is the main thing to remember. 

How Do You Enlist in The Military? 

To enlist, you essentially just need a high school diploma or GED and must achieve passing scores on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB). People can enlist with a college degree...but generally speaking, it doesn’t make sense to do that considering officers earn better pay and enjoy extra privileges. Here are a few different scenarios:

  • Usually, those who enlist have busy military jobs and must sign up for classes when off-duty
  • Many enlisted people slowly earn their bachelor’s or even master’s degrees but choose to stay enlisted
  • Others get a degree so they can apply to a commissioning program and switch over to an officer position
  • Some start their degree while enlisted but get out after a few years and use their GI Bill benefits to return to school as veteran students 

Those who have taken the ASVAB (usually in high school) and have questions about enlisting can call or visit an enlisted recruiter to discuss career options. If they decide to go for it, they’ll sign an enlistment contract to serve for a certain number of years. In exchange, the enlisted member will soon become eligible for Active Duty Tuition Assistance as well as Post-9/11 G.I. Bill benefits.  

What is Military Tuition Assistance?

The Tuition Assistance (TA) program is relatively straightforward. DANTES summarizes it nicely:

“The Department of Defense (DoD) Tuition Assistance (TA) program provides financial assistance to Servicemembers [i.e., military personnel] for voluntary off-duty education programs in support of professional and personal self-development goals.”

DANTES goes on to clarify that “TA is available for courses that are offered in the classroom or by distance learning and are part of an approved academic degree or certificate program.” 

Both enlisted personnel (and, in most cases, officers seeking to obtain a graduate degree) are eligible to receive Tuition Assistance benefits when funding is available. Funding has rarely been interrupted; however, sequestration did cause forced budget cuts in 2013 which temporarily impacted TA funding. 

Personnel will work directly with their supervisor and their base’s education office to complete necessary TA forms. These forms, once approved, are then submitted to the member’s applicable college. There’s always help at hand...but it’s wise to understand how TA works before joining the military!

How Much Does TA Pay, and What Does It Cover?

Tuition assistance rules and amounts aren’t necessarily set in stone, but there are some general guidelines.

  • Military OneSource outlines that “TA can lessen your financial concerns considerably, since it now pays up to 100% of tuition expenses for semester hours costing $250 or less.”
  • In general, Tuition Assistance pays for tuition plus course-specific fees for certain training courses or courses leading to a bachelor’s or master’s. It isn’t designed to pay for PhD, MD, or JD programs, though there may be exceptions in some cases. 
  • TA is not unlimited. There are financial caps to the benefit. For example, under current Air Force TA program rules, TA will cover “100% tuition & fees, not to exceed: $250 per semester hour, $166 per quarter hour, and $4,500 per fiscal year.” These caps are fairly consistent across each branch of the service, though the Army and Coast Guard have lower annual caps at this time. 
  • Members who have the GI Bill can use the Top-Up Program to cover the gap if they exceed their TA caps, although this is not always recommended if you’re saving that GI Bill for later.
  • TA also doesn’t pay for books, other course materials, or repeated classes if you fail to pass the first time. It also won’t cover flight training fees or courses that aren’t completed while serving in the military. The GI Bill, on the other hand, was designed to cover tuition and other college costs after separation from the service. 

What is the GI Bill?

The GI Bill can get complicated fast, which is why we published an Ultimate Guide on How To Use Your GI Bill

A simple summary from Veterans Affairs states “GI Bill benefits help you pay for college, graduate school, and training programs. Since 1944, the GI Bill has helped qualifying Veterans and their family members get money to cover all or some of the costs for school or training.”

Comparison of Tuition Assistance vs. the GI Bill

Here is a general comparison of Tuition Assistance vs. the GI Bill is as follows:

  Tuition Assistance GI Bill
Where does the funding come from? Military branches Veterans Affairs
What does it pay for? Tuition while you’re serving in the military (Members serving in the military can tap into their GI Bill using the Top-Up Program to cover expense gaps if they deplete their TA benefits ) Primarily for paying college costs after you’ve gotten out of the military
What is covered? Tuition only In-state tuition, housing costs, books, and other fees
Length of time commitments Members must meet service length commitments to obtain benefits Members must meet service length commitments to obtain benefits; benefits may be pro-rated depending on the member’s months of service 
Upfront costs No upfront costs The Post-9/11 GI Bill has no upfront costs, but members must pay $100 a month for a year to “buy” their Montgomery GI Bill benefit
Payout amount per year TA pays a set amount per course and per year Post-9/11 GI Bill doesn’t pay a set amount for public colleges. Instead, it pays “tuition and fees up to the in-state resident rate for 36 months at public schools.” However, “if attending a private or foreign school, it can pay up to $26,042.81 per year”
Total benefit amount Not to exceed $4,500 per fiscal year Over the span of a typical four-year college degree program, GI Bill benefits added together can come out to ~$112,000! 
Are benefits transferable? No, TA can only be used by the member Post-9/11 GI Bill can be transferred to an eligible spouse or children

There is more than one GI Bill — there’s the Montgomery GI Bill, the Post-9/11 GI Bill, and the updated Forever GI Bill. You can use the GI Bill Comparison Tool for more info.

Important note: Many military-friendly colleges offer military discounts and participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program. This program “can help you pay for higher out-of-state, private school, foreign school, or graduate school tuition and fees that the Post-9/11 GI Bill doesn’t cover.” The value of this Yellow Ribbon benefit can add up to some serious savings, so check to see if your school qualifies.

When Can an Enlisted Person Start Using Tuition Assistance or the GI Bill?

A person who enlists will attend their branch’s equivalent to “basic training,” which will last roughly a month and a half to two months, depending on which branch is joined. After paid basic training, the member will likely be sent to another base to receive paid career field training for a few weeks or months, depending on the complexity of their assigned job. 

Next, they’ll go off to their first duty assignment where they can finally start taking classes. 

When can you take classes?

The military wants members to obtain a higher education, which is why all branches offer TA. But in the military, the job comes first. 

Once assigned to their base, the enlisted member will usually be required to complete additional career field training, either On-The-Job, via a paper course, or both. After that extra job training is satisfactorily completed, only then can the member sign up for college classes and start using TA with their supervisor’s permission. 

Long story short, it might be up to a year or more between the time you enlist to the time you can start taking classes! The length of time depends greatly on which career field you work in, and how long all mandatory training takes. 

How do you take classes while enlisted? 

Even after you finish all of your job training, you still must do your day-to-day job! 

Many military jobs require long duty hours, not to mention travel requirements or overseas deployments. Such obligations will cut into your free time, so if you plan to take classes, you might have to find a college that offers flexible night courses or online classes. This is another reason why it is beneficial to enroll in military-friendly schools!  

It isn’t uncommon for military students to end up attending more than one college, especially if they move around a lot. For instance, a person might get stationed in a state for three years, spend their first year completing job training, then attend a local college in person, part-time, for two years before getting moved to another state or an overseas location. Once at their next base, they might have to do extra job training yet again, before enrolling in a different school (at which point they’ll have to request to transfer credits). 

How long does it take to complete a degree in the military?

Considering that a full-time student takes 4-5 years to complete a bachelor’s, a part-time military student may take as long as 8-10 years to complete the same degree requirements (unless, of course, they get out first). That is why it is vital to check if there are any maximum time limitations for degree completion or transfer credits if you have to switch schools. 

With all that said, keep in mind that an increasing number of colleges, especially military-friendly schools, offer course credit for completed military basic and job training. This can help members get a jump start on their degrees! The VA makes it easy to obtain transcripts that feature suggested transfer credit hours:

  1. “For the Army, Navy, Marines, or Coast Guard, go to the Joint Services Transcript (JST) website
  2. Fill out an Official Transcript Request to share your transcript with schools online. 
  3. For the Air Force, go to the Community College of the Air Force website
  4. Submit a request to have your transcript mailed to schools.” 

Military personnel can also schedule paid CLEP and DANTES exams to knock out even more college credits. Depending on how many military credits or CLEP/DANTES exams are accepted and how many years a member serves, students could finish their bachelor’s or even master’s in less than 8-10 years. 

This means they could get by only using TA benefits, without ever touching their GI Bill benefits. That GI Bill could then be used later, for a different degree or type of training, or be passed to a spouse or children. Not a bad deal! 

Should You Enlist or Apply to Become an Officer?

The million-dollar question many people who are thinking about joining the military must consider is, which route should they take — officer or enlisted? 

As mentioned, there are far fewer officers than enlisted troops, and you must have a college degree to become an officer. However, if you don’t already have one, that’s fine because that’s why Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) units exist on college campuses around the nation. It’s also why military service academies exist, too! 

Reserve Officers' Training Corps is the most common way for people to join the military as officers. Anyone who participates in an ROTC program is both a college student and an ROTC cadet simultaneously. 

As a student, they enroll in a college that hosts an ROTC unit (or has a crosstown agreement with one). The student selects a major but will minor in their ROTC subject. Courses are taught by military instructors and count for college credit. Most are academically similar to any other class; however, some ROTC credit hours are devoted to physical fitness and leadership experiences. 

In general, ROTC programs require 3-to-4 years to complete. Ideally, students enter their freshman year, but in some cases may sign up as sophomores. In rare situations, an ROTC cadet enrolled in a degree program that requires more than 4 years to finish will serve in an extended capacity during their fifth year of ROTC, acting in part as mentors to the other cadets. 

Though ROTC scholarships are common, they aren’t guaranteed. Students may compete to win a scholarship while in high school or after already enrolled in college. Each branch of service has its own unique criteria for scholarships, which are given out based on a wide range of variables including GPA, fitness, leadership traits and potential, and the subject being majored in. 

As described by the Congressional Research Service, “The U.S. military service academies are tuition-free, four-year degree-granting institutions operated by the military departments.” We could write a book just on the military service academies, which are: 

There are also two federal service academies: 

The academies, designed exclusively to produce officers, are very different from ROTC programs. They have completely different application procedures and rules. 

ROTC programs are hosted by civilian colleges with military oversight of the specific programs. The service academies are operated by the military with oversight by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, the applicable service Secretaries, and a Board of Visitors. 

Enrolled academy students are, in fact, full-time military cadets considered to be on Active Duty while attending. So, in terms of answering the question “Should I join the military to get college paid for?” keep in mind that if you attend an academy, you are already in the military! There are no scholarships because there is no tuition. Room, board, books, and expenses are paid, along with medical coverage and a monthly stipend. 

The academies are particularly challenging to get accepted into and ultimately more rigorous than ROTC. But if you’re looking for an immersive officer-training experience with no bills to worry about, this might be a route to consider!