Can You Go to College While in the Military?

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Aspiring military service members who enlist for the bennies – not to mention those who have been serving long enough to know they want a shot at the good life when they get out – often find themselves eager to start putting those sweet college benefits to work. Whether you’re considering your prospects for going in or just considering a better life for yourself after you get out, the question of whether you can go to college while still in the military probably isn’t too far from your mind.  

You’ll be glad to know the answer is yes – you absolutely can.

Not only can you go to college while serving in the military, all branches have tuition assistance programs that cover all or part of the cost, whether it’s a community college or technical school program, four-year degree or graduate program. In addition, there are many military supportive colleges and universities that have programs and assistance in place that make attending college while serving easier and more convenient than anything you’ve ever done in your day job.

In FY2018 alone, more than 200,000 active duty officers and enlisted servicemembers enrolled in more than 600,000 courses, putting about $425 million in military education benefits to work for themselves.

Benefits of Going to College While in the Military

New career opportunities… more earning power… and an opportunity to rise through the ranks in the military are just some of the benefits of going to college while in the military.

Whether you’re interested in simply exploring an area of interest by taking a college course or two, earning credits to advance your military career, or preparing for a whole new career once you separate or retire from military service and transition back to civilian life, attending college while you’re in could be one of the smartest decisions you make.

Best of all? Earn your college degree in the military and you can do it on the military’s dime. Tuition assistance can cover some or all of the cost of attending college, whether as an undergraduate or graduate student and through an on-base college, the online or local college you always wanted to attend, as well as through domestic and international education centers and vendor training sites.

And while it may seem like a daunting task to go to college while you’re still serving, many colleges and universities across the country offer unique accommodations designed to make school more accessible and more manageable to active duty service members.

Military supportive colleges and universities offer flexible degree options for these non-traditional learners that often include the option of online study, accelerated courses, and multiple start dates each year. They also often work closely with the military to ensure a hassle-free process when using your military tuition assistance benefits.

military family looking at laptop

DoD and Branch-Specific Tuition Assistance for Military Personnel Attending College

If you’re an active-duty service member, tuition assistance is one of the best ways to pay for college.

The U.S. Department of Defense’s (DoD) Tuition Assistance (TA) Program provides eligible active-duty service members with tuition assistance, and each branch of the military establishes its own rules surrounding who can use it and how much it offers.

According to the Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support (DANTES), while each branch sets its own criteria, in general, service members can receive a maximum of $250 per semester hour with an annual maximum of $4,500 to pay for tuition.

Service members are eligible for in-state tuition at public colleges and universities if they’ve been on active duty for more than 30 days in the state where they reside or are permanently stationed.

Through the TA program, service members can use tuition assistance to pay for any off-duty education programs that support their professional and personal self-development goals. Both on-campus and online courses that are part of an approved academic degree or certificate program are included in the TA program. All courses must be offered by schools that are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and are signatories to the DoD Voluntary Education Partnership Memorandum of Understanding (DoD MOU).

Here’s a closer look at the fine print each military branch has established for tuition assistance:

Air Force Tuition Assistance

The Air Force Tuition Assistance program pays for up to 100% of tuition not to exceed $250 per semester credit hour ($166.66 per quarter hour) or $4,500 maximum per fiscal year.

Airmen apply for TA using the Air Force Virtual Education Center (AFVEC). Once you’ve set up an account on AFVEC, you’ll apply for TA. You must apply for TA at least 7 dates prior to the class start date.

AFVEC is tied with the Community College of the Air Force (CCAF), which partners with more than 113 affiliated Air Force Technical schools to help airmen earn their AAS. You can use AFVEC to send your transcripts from CCAF to other schools; track your courses, grades, and payment information; explore credentials you may qualify for; find schools to earn your bachelor’s degree; and more.

Did you know?

The Community College of the Air Force (CCAF) is the world’s largest community college system. It awards more than 22,000 AAS degrees from 71 degree programs every year.

Other things you should know:

Army Tuition Assistance

The Army Tuition Assistance program pays for up to 100% of tuition not to exceed $250 per semester credit hour ($166.66 per quarter hour) or $4,000 maximum per fiscal year.

To qualify for the TA, you must have completed at least one year of service after graduating from Advanced Individual Training. All service members must have ten years of service to receive graduate-level TA if any portion of their undergraduate degree was paid for through TA.

You’ll apply for TA through the ArmyIgniteED website. This site features the Army Decision Support Tool (DST) that’s designed to help you find the degree, credential, or training program that’s right for you.

Did you know?

Through ArmyIgniteED, Army service members have access to more than 300,000 college courses offered through distance-based study, domestic and international education centers, and campus/vendor training sites.

Other things you should know:

Navy Tuition Assistance

The Navy Tuition Assistance program pays for up to 100% of tuition not to exceed $250 per semester credit hour ($166.66 per quarter hour) or $4,000 maximum per fiscal year.

Navy TA is available to both officers and enlisted active duty and reservists on continuous duty. Sailors must have completed at least three years of service before they can apply for benefits, and they must be on active duty during the length of the course.

You’ll apply for TA through the Navy College Program site. TA pays for both classroom and independent study/distance learning courses as the associate, bachelor’s, and master’s level. Certificate programs must be on the list of programs approved by the Department of Veteran Affairs. All eligible sailors must receive counseling from a Navy College Education Counselor before securing TA.

Other things you should know:

Note: You may also be eligible for tuition assistance through the Navy College Program for Afloat College Education (NCPACE), which is offered to personnel assigned to sea duty type 2 and 4 Unit Identification Codes (UICs).

Marine Corps Tuition Assistance

The Marine Corps Tuition Assistance program pays for up to 100% of tuition not to exceed $250 per semester credit hour ($166.66 per quarter hour) or $4,500 maximum per fiscal year. TA can only be used for degree programs up to a master’s degree.

TA is available to all active-duty Marines who have completed at least 24 months of service. It is also available for:

You’ll apply for TA through the WebTA site.

You’ll need to start your application at least 60 days in advance of your class start date and receive Command Approval before it can be forwarded to the Voluntary Education Center for final approval.

Other things you should know:

Coast Guard Tuition Assistance

The Coast Guard Tuition Assistance program pays for up to 100% of tuition not to exceed $250 per semester credit hour ($166.66 per quarter hour) or $4,500 maximum per fiscal year.

TA is only approved for service members with a degree plan. You’ll apply for TA (includes uploading your degree plan and getting command approval) through the Education & Training Quota Management Command (ETQC). You must apply no later than 14 days before the start of the class date. To qualify, you must be on active duty or a reservist on long-term orders (more than 180 days). You can only use TA for courses leading to your first associate, bachelor’s, or master’s degree.

Other things you should know:

Army National Guard Tuition Assistance

TA pays covers 100% up to $250 per semester hour, and up to 16 semester hours per year, with a cap of $4,000 per fiscal year.

The college must be a GoArmyEd participant.

Air National Guard Tuition Assistance

TA pays covers 100% up to $250 per semester hour, up to 16 semester hours per year, with a cap of $4,000 per fiscal year.

Army Reserve Tuition Assistance

TA pays covers 100% up to $250 per semester hour, up to 16 semester hours per year, with a cap of $4,500 per fiscal year.

TA pays covers 75% up to $250 per semester hour, up to 16 semester hours per year, with a cap of $4,500 per fiscal year for officers pursuing a bachelor’s degree.

Air Force Reserve Tuition Assistance

TA pays covers 100% up to $250 per semester hour, up to 16 semester hours per year, with a cap of $4,500 per fiscal year for undergraduate degree programs.

TA pays covers 75% up to $250 per semester hour, up to 16 semester hours per year, with a cap of $4,500 per fiscal year for graduate degree programs (master’s degrees).

Navy Reserve Tuition Assistance

Currently, there are no TA programs for the Navy Reserve. However, sailors activated under Title 10 (directed by the president to report for active duty in an official capacity), qualify for active duty TA.

Marine Corps Reserve Tuition Assistance

Currently, there are no TA programs for the Marine Corps Reserve. However, Marines activated under Title 10 (directed by the president to report for active duty in an official capacity) qualify for active duty TA.

Coast Guard Reserve Tuition Assistance

TA pays covers 100% up to $250 per semester hour, up to 16 semester hours per year, with a cap of $2,250 per fiscal year.

Military Mother Returning Home

FAQs for Active Duty Service Members Enrolling in College

Navigating military benefits can be a daunting task. Here’s a look at the top FAQs for those interested in learning more about going to college while in the military:

What if the cost of my tuition exceeds my tuition assistance benefits?

If the cost of your tuition exceeds your TA benefits, you may be eligible for the Top-Up Program, which allows GI Bill® participants to use the GI Bill® to cover the difference between the cost of tuition and TA. To qualify for the Top Up Program, you must be approved for TA and eligible for GI Bill® benefits.

However, if you use the Top-Up Program, your regular GI Bill® benefits will be reduced, whether you’re using the Montgomery GI Bill® or the Post-9/11 GI Bill®. If you plan to attend college once you’re out of the military, you may want to consider if the Top-Up Program is right for you.

Can I receive federal student aid alongside tuition assistance?

Yes, which is why you should run through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form annually to find out exactly what you will be eligible to receive. You can receive federal student loans, grants, and scholarships to pay for the remainder of your college expenses and any tuition that may exceed TA.

Plus, as an active duty service member, you won’t be charged interest on any Direct Student Loans for 60 months while you serve, and you may also qualify to defer repayment on your student loans during this time.

I am eligible for the GI Bill®. Why wouldn’t I just use these benefits instead of TA?

You have the option of using your GI Bill® benefits while on active duty, but it may not be the best option in the long run. In short, if you use your GI Bill® benefits while on active duty, you’ll lose part of all of them after you separate or retire from the service.

You may also be leaving money on the table by doing so. Here’s why:

As a veteran, your GI Bill® benefits through the Post-9/11 GI Bill® include a monthly housing allowance – something you’re not eligible for as an active-duty service member. In some cases, the housing allowance stipend (usually mirrors the Basic Housing Allowance for an E-5 with dependents, although other factors such as location of school can influence this allowance) can exceed the cost of your tuition benefits, so if you take the tuition benefits while you’re still active duty, you could be leaving quite a bit of money behind.