Being in the military doesn't mean you have to delay earning a college degree. Several government and non-governmental programs provide financial aid, scholarships and other types of assistance to military members and veterans who want further their education. If you plan to earn a college degree while serving in the military or when you return to civilian life, here's a look at options for military financial aid or financial aid for veterans that can help you pay for your studies.
Get the Financial Aid You Need
It's important to investigate all of your options for financial aid, because you may need to combine funding from different sources in order to pay tuition and fees. As a current or former member of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps or Coast Guard, you may be eligible for more than one source of assistance. In addition, you may be able to combine these benefits with the non-military financial aid that civilian students receive, such as Stafford Loans, Pell Grants, and private scholarships to minimize your out-of-pocket costs. To qualify for some of these programs, you'll need to file a FASFA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).
Montgomery GI Bill
The GI Bill offers a cash education benefit that you can use for college, technical or vocational courses, correspondence courses, apprenticeship/job training, flight training, high-tech training, licensing and certification test, entrepreneurship training, and some entrance exams. Benefits may also be available for remedial, deficiency, or refresher training.
Veterans and active-duty soldiers who have served at least two years can qualify. Under the Montgomery GI Bill Active Duty (MGIB-AD), you receive benefits based on your training, how long you were/are in the service, your category, and any added benefits from the Department of Defense. Base monthly benefits are set by Congress and depend on your academic program.
Under the Montgomery GI Bill, you pay $100 a month during your first year of active duty to be eligible for the GI Bill. Eligibility for the program ends 10 years after your last date of discharge and the money can't be refunded if you choose not to use it. Only 57 percent of the soldiers who pay for benefits use them, according to FinAid.org.
Reservists who agree to serve for at least six years have a separate GI Bill known as MGIB-SR. As a reservist, you don't have to pay into the program, but you will receive a smaller benefit. Education benefits end 14 years after you become eligible for the program.
Post 9/11 GI Bill
For service members with least 90 days of aggregate active duty service after Sept. 10, 2001 who are still on active duty may be eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Honorably discharged veterans or those who were discharged with a service-connected disability after 30 days may also be eligible for this VA-administered program. Effective August 1, 2009, benefits offered under the Post 9/11 GI Bill apply to attendance only at a degree-granting institution.
Unlike the Montgomery GI Bill, which requires service members to pay $100 a month during their first year of active duty, the Post 9/11 GI Bill has no such buy-in requirement.
Active duty soldiers can use the Tuition Assistance "Top Up" benefit under the GI Bill to supplement their Tuition Assistance benefit, which is offered through military services and doesn't always cover the full tuition rate. The "Top Up" benefit can help fill the gap between what the GI Bill covers and the total cost of attendance.
Soldiers who want to earn a degree or get their high school diploma can receive these "top-up" benefits if they are approved by a military department and are also eligible for active duty GI Bill benefit under the Montgomery GI Bill or Post-9/11 GI Bill programs. To qualify for Top-up, you must first apply for GI Bill benefits, then contact your School Certifying Official (SCO).
Veterans Educational Assistance Program
Federal aid is also available for older service members who make contributions from their pay through the Veterans Educational Assistance Program (VEAP). The government matches your contributions with $2 for every $1 you contribute. Depending on the amount of your contributions, you can receive benefits for up to 36 months. To be eligible you must have entered the service for the first time between Jan. 1, 1977, and June 30, 1985, have opened a contribution account before April 1, 1987, and voluntarily contributed between $25 and $2,700. If you don't use your entitlement after a 10-year period, your portion is automatically refunded to you.
Loan Repayment Programs
Enlisting in the military can help pay off federal student loans such as Stafford, PLUS and consolidation loans. Only certain Military Occupational Specialty qualify for the loan repayment program, and the amount of the benefit depends on your branch of the military. To qualify, however, none of the loans can be in default and loans must have been take out before joining the military (or reenlisting). If you work in the healthcare field, you could be eligible for the Health Professionals Loan Repayment Program.
Military Financial Aid Options
- Reserve Educational Assistance Program (REAP): The National Defense Authorization Act of 2016 ended REAP on November 25, 2015. However, some individuals remain eligible for REAP benefits until November 25, 2019, while others are no longer eligible for REAP benefits. That said, Reservists who would have previously qualified for REAP may find that they qualify for larger education benefits under the post-9/11 GI Bill.
- Yellow Ribbon Program: Some degree-granting institutions participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program so that if the cost of tuition and fees for the school of your choosing exceeds what's covered by the Post-9/11 GI Bill (for instance, if you attend a private school or a public school as a nonresident student) additional funds are made available without an additional charge to your GI Bill entitlement. The institution you attend chooses the amount of tuition and fees to contribute and the VA matches that amount, issuing payment directly to the institution. To qualify, you must be eligible for the maximum benefit under the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
- Iraq & Afghanistan Service Grants: Federal grants are available to some students whose parent or guardian was a member of the U.S. armed forces and died as a result of military service performed in Iraq or Afghanistan after the events of 9/11. The amount of these grants has been reduced by federal budget cuts, so the maximum award for the 2015-2016 school year is $5,382.30 (equal to the amount of a maximum Federal Pell Grant). The grant cannot exceed your cost of attendance for the award year.
Beyond the GI Bill and educational assistance programs, many non-governmental scholarships provide tuition assistance to service members, veterans and their families. Also check with local community organizations in your area and the financial aid office of the program you plan to attend to see if it offers any scholarship opportunities that might be a fit for you. Here's a look at several scholarships for the service members, veterans and their families.
- ROTC Scholarships: The Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) can help you pay for a full-time college degree. There is no military commitment for the first year, giving you a chance to decide whether you want to commit to the military. Full ROTC scholarships can pay for almost all tuition, fees, and books. You are required to take a military science course and enter the service as an officer after graduation.
- VFW's "Sports Clips Help a Hero" Scholarship: The Veterans of Foreign Wars and Sports Clips Haircuts award scholarships of up to $5,000 to qualified applicants paid directly to the accredited school for tuition and fees only. To qualify, you must be a U.S. citizen who is retired, honorably discharged, active duty or a member of the National Guard and Reserve).
- AMVETS Scholarships: AMVETS offers scholarships to veterans or active duty, including guard and reserve, as well as high school seniors who are the children or grandchildren of veterans or active duty service members. Applications are evaluated based on financial need, academic promise and merit.
- American Legion Scholarships: The American Legion offers several scholarships. For instance, the Samsung American Legion Scholarship is open to high school juniors who attend the current session of either The American Legion Boys State or Auxiliary Girls State program and are a direct descendant or a legally adopted child of a wartime veteran who served on active duty during at least one of the periods of war officially designated as eligibility dates for American Legion membership. In 2014, this scholarship program provided nine $20,000 scholarships and 89 $1,100 scholarships.
- Freedom Alliance Scholarship Fund: The Freedom Alliance Scholarship Fund has awarded more than $8 million to the children of American military heroes. To be eligible, you must be the dependent child of an active duty service member who was killed or permanently disabled (100% VA rating) as the result of an operational mission or training accident, or who is currently certified as POW or MIA. The amount of the scholarship varies depending on the student's financial need, and it's renewable for a total of four scholarships.
- Branstad/Reynolds Scholarship Fund: The Children of Fallen Iowa Service Members Scholarship fund provides scholarships for children of deceased military service members who died while in an active military status after September 11, 2001. Siblings of Iowa Fallen Service Members are also eligible. The Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs administers, reviews applications and provides guidance to applicants who apply for this program.
- Jesse Brown Memorial Youth Scholarship Program: Each year, one scholarship recipient receives $20,000, with additional scholarships awarded in the amounts of $15,000, $10,000, $7,500 and $5,000. This scholarship program is for volunteers ages 21 or younger who have volunteered for a minimum of 100 hours at a VA medical center. Volunteer hours can accumulate over time and must be credited to the Disabled American Veterans.
Above, we've outlined several options for military and veteran financial aid. Other financial aid programs may be available for members of the various branches of the military and their family members. Because you may be eligible for a variety of different benefits and aid programs, it's a good idea to discuss your options with an education service officer who can discuss your specific situation and possible funding sources.
- Montgomery GI Bill Active Duty (MGIB-AD), http://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill/
- US Armed Forces Recruiting Programs, http://www.finaid.org/military/recruiting.phtml
- Post-9/11 GI Bill, http://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill/post911_gibill.asp
- Tuition Assistance Top Up, http://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill/tuition_assistance.asp
- Veterans Educational Assistance Program, http://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill/veap.asp
- Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants, https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/types/grants-scholarships/iraq-afghanistan-service
- Army ROTC, http://www.goarmy.com/rotc/scholarships.html
- VFW "Sport Clips Help a Hero Scholarship," http://www.vfw.org/uploadedFiles/VFWorg/MY_VFW/HelpAHeroScholarshipFAQ.pdf
- AMVETS Scholarship FAQs, http://www.amvets.org/amvets-in-action/scholarships/
- Samsung American Legion Scholarship, http://www.legion.org/scholarships/samsung
- Freedom Alliance Scholarship Fund, http://www.fascholarship.com/faq/
- Children of Fallen Iowa Service Members Scholarship, https://va.iowa.gov/media/edb427fc-f0b6-4a4b-a0c1-3f95de416a8c
- Jesse Brown Scholarship, https://www.dav.org/help-dav/volunteer/jesse-brown-scholarship/