If you’re an active-duty member of the military or a reservist, you may be eligible for educational assistance. If you’re married, your spouse could be eligible as well. This article explains the basics and provides the official links for each branch of the service. 

Key Takeaways

  • Several financial aid programs are available to active-duty military personnel, National Guard members, and reservists. 
  • The Defense Department’s Military Tuition Assistance program makes as much as $4,500 a year available for tuition and course-specific fees at accredited schools.
  • The Department of Veterans Affairs’ Tuition Assistance Top-Up program will pay the additional tuition for eligible service members who aren’t fully covered by the Military Tuition Assistance program.
  • Spouses of active-duty military personnel are also eligible for several financial aid programs. 
  • Service members can also apply for federal grants and loans, as well as state and private scholarship programs, by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Tuition Assistance for Service Members

The U.S. Department of Defense’s Military Tuition Assistance (TA) program is available to active-duty, National Guard, and Reserve Component service members to pursue higher education in their off-duty time.

Retired service members are not eligible for the tuition assistance program, but they are eligible for a variety of educational benefits administered by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), including the GI Bill.

In general, the TA 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 and an annual limit of $4,500 (sometimes less). The annual limit is based on a fiscal year running from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30. The money is paid directly to the school.

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 website has a searchable database of accredited institutions.

While those are the basic rules established by the Department of Defense, each branch of the service has its own requirements and application process, as well as different reimbursement limits in some cases. The details can be found on their websites: Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines, and Navy.

In addition to its tuition assistance program, the Navy offers the Navy College Program for Afloat College Education (NCPACE) for independent study and distance learning. Certain full-time civilian employees of the services may also be eligible for special tuition assistance programs.

Note 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.

The Tuition Assistance Top-Up Program

Eligible service members whose tuition costs aren’t fully covered by the Department of Defense’s Military Tuition Assistance program can apply to the VA’s Tuition Assistance Top-Up program to cover the difference.

To qualify, service members must have been on active duty for at least two years and meet the eligibility requirements for the Post-9/11 GI Bill or the Montgomery GI Bill—Active Duty.

To apply for Top-Up benefits, service members should first apply for tuition assistance, then complete VA Form 22-1990 (Application for VA Education Benefits, which can be found on the VA website).

Keep in mind that if a service member receives Top-Up benefits, it will reduce the amount of GI Bill benefits for which they are eligible later. This could be a factor if they’re hoping to pursue further education upon leaving the military.

Benefits for National Guard Members and Reservists

Members of the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine, or Navy Reserves—as well as the Army National Guard and the Air National Guard—can receive education and training benefits through the VA’s Montgomery GI Bill Selected Reserve (MGIB-SR) program.

The maximum benefit is currently $384 a month for up to 36 months.

Financial Aid for Active-Duty Spouses

The Defense Department’s My Career Advancement Account Scholarship program (MyCAA) is for the spouses of active-duty service members, National Guard, and Reserve members.

It provides up to $2,000 a year in financial assistance ($4,000 in total) for spouses who are pursuing a license, certification, or associate degree necessary for employment in a particular field.

In some cases, active-duty service members and reservists also have the option to transfer their unused education benefits under the Post-9/11 GI Bill to their spouse or dependent children. If eligible, they may be able to obtain up to 36 months of benefits that can be used for tuition, housing, books, and supplies. Unlike the financial assistance offered by the MyCAA scholarship program, GI Bill benefits can be used for a four-year college or graduate school.

Important

Active-duty military personnel are also eligible for the full range of federal grants and loans, as well as for private scholarship assistance. Plus, they may qualify for special benefits and repayment options that are not available to anyone else.

Additional Sources of Financial Aid

Aside from the special programs described above, members of the military are eligible for the same types of financial aid as any other student. Those include Pell Grants, subsidized and unsubsidized federal student loans, and federal work/study programs.

In addition, they are eligible for numerous state and private scholarships, some specifically for 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 the federal government and other dispensers of aid 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 are also eligible for special student loan benefits and repayment options from the Department of Education and the Department of Defense that are not available to other borrowers.