While on active duty, John D. used the Army’s tuition assistance program to pursue both undergraduate and master’s degrees.
Not only did he take advantage of the Military Tuition Assistance, or TA, program to plan for a career as an Army officer and beyond, participation in the program provided another opportunity later when his children graduated from high school and sought their own degrees.
With his education goals realized through the TA program, John was able to – in his proud words – “give my children two years of college through the GI Bill.”
Not everyone is in position to make such good use of military TA programs, or for that matter to transfer GI Bill education benefits to a spouse or dependent children. But John’s story is an example of the opportunities TA can provide for active-duty service men and women across all branches of the military.
What is the military Tuition Assistance program?
TA is a Department of Defense program that provides financial assistance to service members for voluntary off-duty education programs in pursuit of professional and personal self-development goals. Congress has given each service the ability to pay up to 100% for the tuition expenses of its members.
According to DoD’s budget submission for fiscal year 2020, the branches of service allotted more than $561 million from their fiscal year 2019 appropriations for their active components’ voluntary education programs, which included tuition assistance.
Who Can Get Benefits From this Program?
The military tuition assistance program is all-inclusive, meaning it’s open to all branches: Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, National Guard and Reserves. However, each branch employs its own criteria for eligibility, obligated service, application process and restrictions.
The amount of tuition assistance available is approximately the same across branches, but qualifying for a TA program – and how much assistance you receive – is at the discretion of your command.
Coverage Amounts and Monetary Limits
If you meet the eligibility criteria in your branch of the service, the TA programs may cover 100% of your tuition costs and other fees provided certain monetary limits are not exceeded:
- $250 per semester credit hour.
- $166 per quarter credit hour.
- $4,500 per fiscal year, October 1 through September 30.
How much is allowed per fiscal year is at the discretion of each branch of the military offering the program. It’s important (and should be enticing) to know, these are not loans. It’s a benefit that doesn’t require you to pay back the amount of the tuition assistance as long as you meet class completion requirements.
Tuition Assistance Benefits and Restrictions
The TA programs are a great chance to pursue degrees in both academic and technical programs from two- or four-year institutions. Approved programs can be taught on-installation, off-installation or by distance learning provided the institution meets accreditation standards reviewed and approved by the Department of Education.
The Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps operate education centers on their installations, and the Navy operates a consolidated virtual education center for all naval installations in the continental United States.
The program isn’t new and has been frequently vetted to ensure it’s meeting the needs of military members and making proper use of taxpayer money.
Congress held hearings in 2011 to bring more oversight into the program, mainly aimed at for-profit online universities – some of whom practiced aggressive and deceptive recruiting and offered some courses that failed to meet accreditation standards.
In 2019, the Inspector General released findings of an audit of controls at military installations for schools participating in the DoD Tuition Assistance program.
Again, the goal was to police abuses by for-profit online universities. The report found compliance among the schools studied. Among other findings, the report cited a widespread and necessary quality control in place that “required service members to meet with an education counselor before the members were permitted to select an institution or education program.”
Once pre-counseling and approval is completed, tuition assistance may be used for vocational/technical programs, undergraduate and graduate programs, independent study and distance-learning as long as your command approves.
- Course-specific fees such as laboratory costs or online course fees.
What’s not covered?
- Books and course material.
- Flight training fees.
- The cost of repeating a particular course.
- Continuing education units, or CEUs.
Each branch of the military pays accredited institutions directly. That doesn’t mean you’re totally off the hook financially. Each service also has a reimbursement policy in which you are required to pay back the cost of tuition if you:
- Leave the service before the class ends.
- Fail the course.
- Quit the course for reasons other than illness, transfer or mission requirements that preclude your finishing.
VA Tuition Assistance Top-Up Program
The Military Tuition Assistance Program caps your per-semester credit hour cost at $250 in most branches of the service. Sometimes that doesn’t quite cover the cost of the course and auxiliary fees.
If the cost of a particular course or courses exceeds that, the Top-Up program allows funds from the Montgomery GI Bill – Active Duty or Post- 9/11 GI bill to be used to bridge course costs for as long as 36 months.
To use Top-Up, you must be eligible for either the Montgomery GI Bill or the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
The Montgomery GI Bill
- You’ll receive the difference between the Department of Defense TA allowance and the total cost of the course.
- Using the Top-Up program will subtract from your GI Bill The benefit will be reduced, or charged, one month of entitlement for each payment received that is equal to the full-time monthly GI bill rate. So, it’s important to take that into account before applying for the Top-Up program.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill
- Pays your school the difference between the Department of Defense Tuition allowance and the approved maximum tuition and fees.
- The benefit is charged based on training time. For instance, half training time reduces your GI Bill benefit by a half month for each month of enrollment.
- Using both TA and the Post-9/11 GI Bill for the same course could be problematic since the Post-9/11 GI Bill often covers the full cost of tuition and fees and is charged at that full amount no matter how much is covered by TA. Using the benefits separately as opposed as together for the same course is often a better way to maximize your educational benefit funding.
The Application Process
Completing the application process is more than filling out paperwork. Each branch of the military has its own application process and requirements.
For instance, the Air Force requires an education goal and degree plan as part of the application process. A general degree plan is accepted for the first six credits but a more specific degree plan is required thereafter.
The Navy stipulates applications be completed at least 30 days before the term start date. The Marine Corps limits first-time enrollees to one course, but allows you to take two courses after that.
In short, applicants should visit the website of their respective branch of service for details on how to complete the process and to get information on other standards that must be met for acceptance into the program.
Be diligent. With advance planning and counseling, the Tuition Assistance program can provide educational growth and leadership skills that can save you money while paying dividends now and for whatever comes next.
About The Author
Craig Richardson is a military veteran who started his journalism career while serving in the Navy. Following overseas deployments to the Med and Middle East, including service in Operation Desert Storm, he left for the private sector but continued with journalism. He has worked for several publishers and news organizations over nearly 30 years and continued to cover stories with ties to veterans and military affairs throughout his career.
- Wilson, A. (2021, September 29) Navy’s tuition assistance will cover more credit hours but fewer may qualify for program. Retrieved from https://www.stripes.com/branches/navy/2021-09-29/us-navy-tuition-assistance-college-classes-benefits-3062715.html
- N.A. (ND) How Do I Apply for Tuition Assistance? Retrieved from https://usmc-mccs.org/articles/how-do-i-apply-for-tuition-assistance/
- N.A. (ND) Tuition Assistance (TA). Retrieved from https://myarmybenefits.us.army.mil/Benefit-Library/Federal-Benefits/Tuition-Assistance-(TA)
- N.A. (ND) Marine Corps Tuition Assistance Policies. Retrieved from https://www.mccscp.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/PDF_MARINE-CORPS-TUITION-ASSISTANCE-POLICIES-2017.pdf