Members of the U.S. military are eligible for a variety of government programs to pay for college—during school, while they are serving, and after they complete their service. Here's a rundown of the programs that are available, starting with current college students.
- The U.S. military has a number of programs to help pay for college.
- Financial assistance for college is available to current students, active-duty military personnel, reservists, and veterans.
- For current college students, programs include the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC), which is active at many colleges and universities.
- Each branch of the armed services has a Military Tuition Assistance program for its active-duty personnel.
- Veterans are eligible for benefits through the Montgomery GI Bill and the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
Military Benefits for College Students
Each branch of the U.S. military has its own college-level service academy to train future officers. All of these academies are free to attend in return for a commitment to serve, but they are highly competitive in terms of admission. The U.S. Air Force Academy is in Colorado; the U.S. Army Military Academy West Point is in New York; the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marines (a component of the Department of the Navy) share the United States Navy Academy in Maryland; the U.S. Coast Guard Academy is in Connecticut. The Marine Corps also has an Officer Candidates School (OCS) in Virginia. Application information is available on their respective websites.
Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) Programs
In addition to their service academies, the Air Force, Army, and Navy (including the Marines) sponsor Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) programs at many colleges and universities. ROTC programs provide college scholarships of up to four years to eligible students who apply in high school. Students who are already in college can apply for three- or two-year scholarships, depending on when they expect to graduate.
The scholarships provide full tuition and fees as well as a monthly stipend to cover other expenses. ROTC scholarships require a commitment to participate in training during the school year and to serve after graduation.
The Coast Guard doesn't have an ROTC program, per se, but does offer the College Student Pre-commissioning Initiative, which provides full funding for up to two years of college.
College Benefits for Active-Duty Service Members and Reservists
Military Tuition Assistance
The U.S. Department of Defense's Military Tuition Assistance program is available to active-duty, National Guard, and Reserve Component service members who want to pursue higher education in their off-duty time. Although veterans are not eligible, there are many other programs they do qualify for, as described below.
The Military Tuition Assistance program will pay up to 100% of tuition and course-specific fees, with a limit of $250 per semester credit hour (or $166 per quarter credit hour) up to an annual limit of $4,500 (though sometimes less). The annual limit covers a fiscal year running from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, and the money is paid directly to the school. This program doesn't cover housing, books, or other expenses.
To qualify for tuition assistance, the college or university must be accredited by an accrediting body recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Two- and four-year institutions are eligible, as are vocational/technical programs, graduate programs, and distance learning. The Department of Education has a searchable database of accredited institutions on its website.
The guidelines above are the core standards established by the Department of Defense, but each branch of the service has its own requirements and application process; in some cases, there are also different reimbursement limits. Full details can be found on their websites: Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines, Navy.
In addition to its Tuition Assistance program, the Navy offers the Navy College Program for Afloat College Education (NCPACE), which pays for independent study and distance learning.
Certain full-time civilian employees of the services may also be eligible for special Tuition Assistance programs.
Bear in mind that approval for tuition assistance is not automatic. Service members must apply to their service's education center and be accepted into the program before they enroll in a course or become eligible for benefits.
Tuition Assistance Top-Up Program
To help eligible service members whose tuition costs aren't fully covered by the Military Tuition Assistance program, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) offers a Tuition Assistance Top-Up program, which will pay the difference.
To qualify for a Top-Up, two requirements must be met: 1) the cost of the course and fees must be more than tuition assistance will cover; 2) service members must qualify for either the Montgomery GI Bill Active Duty (MGIB-AD) or the Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits—and have been on active duty for at least two years (in most cases).
Service members should first apply for tuition assistance, then complete VA Form 22-1990 (under Apply for VA Education Benefits on the VA's website) to apply for Top-Up benefits.
Note that receiving Top-Up benefits will reduce the amount of GI Bill benefits a service member is eligible for later—something worth keeping in mind if you're hoping to pursue further education after you leave the military.
The Montgomery GI Bill Selected Reserve (MGIB-SR)
The VA's Montgomery GI Bill Selected Reserve (MGIB-SR) is one of the education programs for active-duty military (and reservists) in the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine, or Navy Reserve, as well as the Army National Guard and Air National Guard.
In limited instances, service members may also be able to receive benefits after leaving the Selected Reserve.
The maximum benefit is $407 a month for up to 36 months of college or other education (as of August 2022).
College Benefits for Veterans
The original GI Bill of Rights sent millions of World War II veterans off to college in the 1940s and 1950s. Since then, generations of veterans and their family members have used that program and successor bills to pay for all or some of the costs of college, graduate school, and training.
Today, there are multiple versions of the GI Bill:
- The Montgomery GI Bill Selected Reserve (MGIB-SR), described above
- The Montgomery GI Bill Active Duty (MGIB-AD)
- The Post-9/11 GI Bill
Signed into law in 2017, the Forever GI Bill (also known as the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act) brought significant changes (including several enhancements or expansions) to educational benefits for veterans, service members, families, and survivors.
Veterans who were honorably discharged may be eligible for either the Montgomery GI Bill–Active Duty or the Post-9/11 GI Bill. If a veteran with multiple periods of service is eligible for both, they must choose one or the other—and that decision is irrevocable. (The VA website offers a comparison chart to help guide that decision.)
However, in July of 2021, a court ruling said eligible vets do not have to choose between the two bills. If that decision holds, it could allow a qualifying veteran to receive benefits from one GI bill for the maximum of 36 months and then use the other GI bill to receive additional months of benefits. As of February 2022, the decision on an appeal of that ruling by the VA was pending, so stay tuned.
On July 8, 2021, in a case known as Rudisill v. McDonough, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled that some veterans could be eligible to receive benefits from both the Montgomery GI Bill–Active Duty and the Post-9/11 GI Bill. As of February 2022, that decision may still be appealed by the government.
The Montgomery GI Bill Active Duty (MGIB-AD)
To be eligible for college funding through the Montgomery GI Bill Active Duty (MGIB-AD), veterans must meet certain criteria listed on the VA website, including active-duty service for at least two years during specified time periods. In most cases, they must also have paid a total of $1,200 into the education program while they were serving.
If they qualify, veterans can receive up to 36 months of financial assistance toward college. The maximum monthly benefit is $2,122 a month for full-time students (a total of $76,392 over the three years).
The Post-9/11 GI Bill
The Post-9/11 GI Bill is exclusively for veterans who served on or after Sept. 11, 2001. Depending on how long the veteran served, the bill will pay up to 100% of tuition and fees at U.S. public colleges and universities and up to $26,381.37 per academic year at private colleges and foreign institutions for a total of 36 months. In addition, students may be eligible for a housing allowance and a stipend for books and supplies.
More Sources of College Aid for Active-Duty Service Members and Veterans
In addition to the special programs described above, both active-duty members of the military and veterans are eligible for the same financial aid that any other student is. Those include Pell Grants, subsidized and unsubsidized federal student loans, and federal work-study programs.
They also are eligible for numerous state, institutional, and private scholarships, some specifically for current and former members of the military.
To apply for financial aid, prospective students should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA is used by both the federal government and other student aid providers to determine a student's eligibility based on their financial resources. For FAFSA purposes, members of the military are considered "independent students," which means they don’t have to supply information about their parents' finances.
Active-duty military members and veterans are also eligible for special student loan benefits and repayment options that are not available to other borrowers.
How Much College Tuition Does the Military Pay?
The Military Tuition Assistance program pays up to 100% of tuition and course fees, with a limit of $250 per semester credit hour (or $166 per quarter credit hour) up to an annual limit of $4,500.
What Do ROTC Scholarships Cover?
For students who commit to participation in training during the school year and to service after graduation, ROTC scholarships cover full tuition and fees plus a monthly stipend to cover other expenses.
What Is the GI Bill?
The GI Bill refers to education benefits earned by military veterans and their families (including active-duty, reservists, and the National Guard) from the Department of Veterans Affairs to cover the costs of getting an education or training.