Military Aid: Understanding the Options
(Note, this information was accurate as of 1/2015. Check with the pertinent websites for updated information).
Generally speaking, if you find military service at least theoretically palatable as a college funding resource, then college is all but covered if you play your cards right. But what cards do you have available to play? Keeping in mind this is coming from a non-military guy, and no recruiters I called would speak on the record to me, this is my understanding of your options.
The G.I. Bill
For those wanting to do their military service prior to college entrance, the G.I. Bill is the primary benefit available. The current G.I. Bill, officially known as the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill or the G.I. Bill for the 21st Century, went into effect in 2009 and offers much healthier college benefits than the previous version, known as the Montgomery G.I. Bill. (The Montgomery GI Bill is still in effect, but as it is more restrictive and lesser used we won’t discuss it here). In a nutshell, all service members are eligible for full 100% benefit after 36 months of continuous active duty service, with less benefits available for less time served. Once earned, the benefits remain available for 15 years beyond the veteran’s last discharge and are also transferrable.
Fully eligible veterans can receive tuition payments for a period up to 36 months of full-time attendance, a housing allowance and a $1,000 books and supplies stipend. The educational benefit cannot exceed the highest public in-state undergraduate tuition and fees in the state of attendance, and the housing allowance is based on your residential ZIP code. In other words, if you plan to attend a more expensive private school you will get considerable aid toward your tuition while attendees of a state school will receive the equivalent of a full ride scholarship along with housing and books payments. That said, some branches offer separate college funds or “kickers” per certain qualifications, which can increase the level of benefit beyond the state school baseline. Some private schools participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program, which provides the veteran full tuition coverage at those institutions.
Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC)
For those wanting to do their military service after college graduation, four of the military branches offer ROTC programs (the Coast Guard has none). As each branch of the military administers its particular ROTC program, there will be wide variations in the qualifications, experiences and benefits of each.
In general, each branch’s program will require the applicant to be a U.S. citizen of a certain age, have a certain high school GPA, earn a high school diploma or equivalent, attain a certain level of scoring on the SAT or ACT, and meet defined physical standards. If a student qualifies accordingly, she can then apply for a scholarship. This scholarship typically provides for tuition, stipends for books and fees and monthly living allowances. As a further benefit, upon graduation from college the branch will typically commission the student as an officer: Second lieutenants in the Army, Marine Corps and Air Force and ensigns in the Navy. Many regard this last aspect of the ROTC program as key in that officers enjoy a much higher level of lifestyle when serving.
In return for this scholarship, the recipient must agree to several commitments. First of all, the student must enroll in an institution that offers ROTC programming. While in college, the student must complete military-specific coursework and physical training in addition to the typical academic requirements. This can fairly drastically affect one’s experience in that a ROTC recruit will participate in extra classes, early morning drills, special events and the occasional wearing of a uniform. Upon graduation, the student must then serve a certain length of time in active duty which ranges greatly according to branch, scholarship level and one’s role in the military.
Lesser Known Programs
In addition to the much touted GI Bill and ROTC programs, the military offers several other education-related benefits. Though these are not as well known, aspiring students may find them just as advantageous to their cause. Let’s explore the basics of a few of these.
Typically, subsidized loans offer forgiveness for military service and other public sector employment only over a period of 120 months/10 years. However, the Army, Navy and Air Force all offer healthier forgiveness programs for full-timers. As an enlistment incentive, students with no prior military experience can have amounts from $10,000 (Air Force) to $65,000 (Army & Navy) of school loans forgiven over a period of as little as three years full time active duty. Thus, conceptually, a student could attend college and rack up debts in these amounts with the plan to enlist in the military after graduation and consider it done.
The benefit won’t be as potentially healthy as with the more primary college-related incentives, but could serve as a nice in-between option for those who want to go to school before the military but not have to fulfill ROTC’s more consuming coursework and longer active duty requirements. Just keep in mind the warnings about debt in general and that each branch could change this program at any time, potentially after you’ve already committed to debt payments.
Servicemember Opportunity Colleges
For students who would like to commit to military service first, the military offers a Servicemember Opportunities College (SOC) program. Under this program, service members can begin their pursuit of a degree while still enlisted. The program offers such students personalized planning, vastly more flexible credit transfers and mobility and often credit for military experience and training. While not specifically a payment benefit, per se, all of these can make the other military pay and benefit programs go much further. Even if a student doesn’t obtain a degree while serving in the military, they will be able to transfer credits to their chosen institution from cheaper schools (some with campuses at the various bases and installations) and get paid while earning some of these experience-related credits. Students must also consider time savings. The SOC program greatly benefits those who want to do both military and school, but who don’t want to dedicate seven or more years to the total experience.
Veterans Educational Assistance Program
In addition to the programs which provide money in return for your time, the military offers a money for money match program, the Veterans Educational Assistance Program (VEAP). Under the VEAP, service members can elect to make contributions from their military pay toward an education account. The military then kicks in a $2 for $1 match to the account, which you can withdraw toward qualifying tuition. The funds can remain in place for as long as 10 years after last discharge.
National Call to Service Program
The military program known as the National Call to Service stands out uniquely. An individual can make a choice of benefits, one of which impacts the graduate more and one that helps the yet-to-be student. To qualify for the National Call to Service one must initially serve in a military occupational specialty specified by the Secretary of Defense for a minimum period of 15 months, then continue in military service in active duty for a period of 24 months, followed by a period of further participation in active duty, reserves, a national service program (i.e. Americorps), or some combination thereof. In return for fulfilling this requirement the veteran can opt for any number of incentives, including cash payment, repayment of a school loan, an allowance, or coordination with Montgomery GI Bill benefits.
Along with the benefits offered to full-time active duty service members, each branch of the military has a part-time reserves program. The various reserves programs will still entail training and duty requirements, all with the idea that the military can call reservists into active duty in the event of a national crisis. Reservists enjoy many of the same benefits as active duty members, such as tuition assistance, GI Bill eligibility, loan repayment and the like. In addition, certain reservists may be eligible for a program known as Reserve Educational Assistance (REAP) which provides a bonus for education in return for a contribution from the reservist, but only after they have been called into active duty for a length of time as a result of a war or national emergency. Some benefits, such as VEAP and the ROTC program, are not eligible to solely reservists.
If you want to participate in the reserves in lieu of full time active duty, just understand that less total time committed to the service yields fewer total benefits. It may be a way to get help with the cost of college without the multi-year, round-the-clock commitments. Keep in mind that one must understand the tradeoff.
If you wish to pursue military service for college funding purposes you need to take some practical steps to pull it all together.
Firstly, you have the military side of things. I have provided you a broad and basic summary of your options, but you will inevitably want to research them further. You have several resources available to you. Start with the websites to gain a working knowledge of the game. You will want to seek out general military sites, Veteran’s Administration benefit pages and sites specific to the branches. At decision time you need to speak with a recruiter, who specializes in such knowledge and who will sign you up for the service duties and benefits of your choosing. I recommend this as a later step so that you can arm yourself with knowledge and speak the language, and also since there will be some pressure to take certain actions once you engage a recruiter. I also recommend that when visiting with recruiters you bring along an older adult to help you process the information, provide you objective advice and guidance and act as a witness to promises made.
Secondly, you will need to get a good sense of the numbers involved, in order to ensure your plans stay within your personal affordology parameters. Some students will cover all their tuition via military programs while others will not. As you research and settle on benefits, be sure to test everything against your Resource grid to ensure full funding. When running the Return filter, the equations must now factor in three or more years of active duty requirements at X pay. With a little number crunching, you will discover the best use of your military career. This sometimes means using a combination of strategies, such as partaking of in the GI Bill, the SOC and the VEAP simultaneously or using the ROTC program for your undergrad degree and the GI Bill for your Masters program.
All in all the military offers a wealth of educational benefits in addition to good pay, access to the VA health system, skills and career training and leadership development. It would behoove any student even mildly interested in the service to check this income source out more fully.