Joining the military can make it easier to pay for a college degree. The federal government offers benefits to service members that can ease the financial burden of getting an education.
Help is available to active-duty personnel, enrolled college students, and veterans. Depending on your military branch and status, you might qualify for tuition assistance, scholarships, or student loan repayment benefits.
In this guide:
- How does the military pay for college for active-duty personnel?
- Does the military pay for college for current students?
- How does the military pay for college for veterans?
- Does the military help with student loan repayment if I’ve already graduated?
How does the military pay for college for active-duty personnel?
The U.S. military provides financial assistance for active-duty personnel who want to earn a degree through direct payments and tuition assistance. How much of your college the military pays for can depend on which option you’re eligible for.
The GI Bill offers education benefits for eligible service members, veterans, and their family members who attend college, graduate school, or training programs. The program is open to Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps or Coast Guard Reserves, Army National Guard, Air National Guard, and Space Force members.
How much does the military pay for college under the GI Bill? The program pays for a maximum of 48 months of education benefits.
The benefits you can receive under the GI Bill depend on two factors:
- Number of classes you attend
- Hours spent in those classes
Annual caps apply. For example, if you receive benefits under the Post-9/11 GI Bill for the 2022–2023 academic year, you can see the difference in the maximum the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) will pay based on the type of institution:
|Type of school||Maximum benefits|
|Public college||Total cost of in-state tuition and fees|
You must attend an eligible school to qualify, which can include the following:
- Two-year and four-year colleges and universities
- Vocational schools
- Technical schools
- Graduate schools
The VA offers an online search tool to help you find compatible schools.
Eligibility is based on your service record, and benefits are not automatic. You can apply online through the VA website, in person at a VA regional office, or by mail. The VA assists if you need help applying for education benefits.
Post-9/11 GI Bill
The Post-9/11 GI Bill pays for school or job training for service members who were on active duty after September 10, 2001. You may be eligible for benefits if at least one of the following is true:
- You served at least 90 days on active duty on or after September 11, 2001.
- You received a Purple Heart on or after September 11, 2001, and were honorably discharged from service.
- You served at least 30 continuous days on or after September 11, 2001, and were honorably discharged with a service-connected disability.
- You’re a dependent child using benefits transferred by a qualifying veteran or service member.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill offers up to 48 months of education benefits, including funds for tuition and fees, housing, books and supplies, and moving expenses if you’re leaving a rural area to attend school.
If you’re eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill, you’ll receive benefits equal to a percentage of in-state tuition rates. You’re eligible for 100% of the full benefit if one of the following applies:
- You served on active duty for at least 1,095 days (36 months) total.
- You served on active duty and received a Purple Heart on or after September 11, 2001.
- You served on active duty for at least 30 continuous days (without a break) and were discharged because of a service-connected disability.
If you served less than 36 months, the benefit ranges from 50% to 90%, depending on how long you were on active duty.
The bill only covers in-state tuition rates, so if you want to attend an out-of-state school that doesn’t offer in-state rates to service members or veterans, you’ll be responsible for education costs that your GI Bill benefits don’t cover.
The education benefits you can receive through the program depend on:
- How long you served
- Which category you qualify for
- The education or training program you choose
- Whether you qualify for a college fund
- How much you’ve paid into the $600 Buy-Up program
The Buy-Up program allows you to qualify for more GI Bill benefits if you contribute up to $600.
Note: The Montgomery GI Bill – Active Duty program can pay for education and training if you’ve served at least two years on active duty. Since you must be honorably discharged to qualify, find out more about it in our section on benefits for veterans below.
Military Tuition Assistance
The Department of Defense (DoD) offers military tuition assistance to help reservists and active-duty military members pay for school. The military pays up to 100% of your tuition if you qualify. You can use Montgomery GI Bill – Active Duty or Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits alongside military tuition assistance to pay for school.
Members of the Army, Army National Guard, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard are eligible for tuition assistance, but the level of benefits depends on where you serve. Your school and program must be approved to receive benefits.
Tuition assistance is paid at a rate of $250 per semester hour. Army members can receive benefits equal to 16 credit hours per year, while all other branches are subject to an annual cap of $4,500. You can use assistance to pay for:
- Associate degree programs
- Bachelor’s degree programs
- Master’s degree programs
First professional degrees, including doctorate degrees, are not eligible.
You’ll complete an application specific to your service branch to apply for military tuition assistance. Note that this program covers tuition only—not additional expenses such as fees, books, and supplies.
What if my tuition exceeds what the GI Bill and Military Tuition Assistance cover?
If your GI Bill and tuition assistance benefits fall short of what you need to pay for college, you may still be able to get additional help. Two programs are designed to close the gap in funding education costs.
GI Bill Yellow Ribbon Program
The GI Bill Yellow Ribbon Program can pay for costs the Post-9/11 GI Bill doesn’t cover, including tuition and fees at out-of-state, private, foreign, and graduate schools. There are, however, several eligibility requirements.
You must qualify for the Post-9/11 GI Bill at the 100% benefit level. At least one of the following must also apply:
- You served at least 36 months on active duty and were honorably discharged.
- You received a Purple Heart on or after September 11, 2001, and were honorably discharged.
- You served at least 30 continuous days on or after September 11, 2001, and were honorably discharged or released from active duty for a service-connected disability.
- You’re on active duty and have served at least 36 months.
- You’re a spouse using transferred benefits of an active-duty service member who’s served at least 36 months on active duty.
- You’re a dependent child using benefits transferred by a veteran.
- You’re a Fry Scholar.
Your school also must be eligible. It needs to be an institution of higher learning that offers the Yellow Ribbon program. The school can’t have offered Yellow Ribbon benefits to more than the VA’s maximum number of students, and your enrollment must be certified.
You must apply for Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits before the Yellow Ribbon program. You’ll also need to show your school your Certificate of Eligibility (COE) for GI Bill benefits to submit a Yellow Ribbon program application.
Tuition Assistance Top-Up program
If the Yellow Ribbon program isn’t an option, you might be able to apply for the Tuition Assistance Top-Up program. The program is open to veterans and service members, and you can qualify if both of the following are true:
- You’re eligible for Montgomery GI Bill Active Duty or Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits.
- The cost of the course and fees is more than tuition assistance covers.
The Top-Up program provides up to 36 months of education benefits to help pay for school. The combined amount you receive in tuition assistance and top-up benefits cannot exceed the total cost of your tuition. You can apply for the Top-Up program online through the VA website.
Are the programs above available to reservists?
Reservists can get help paying for college under the GI Bill. Tuition assistance benefits and Top-up benefits also extend to reserve members of the military. The amount you can receive depends on which program you’re eligible for.
Montgomery GI Bill – Selected Reserve (MGIB-SR)
The Montgomery GI Bill – Selected Reserve program pays education benefits to members of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard Reserve, Army National Guard, and Air National Guard. You may be eligible if you have a six-year service obligation, or you’re an officer who agrees to serve six years on top of your initial service obligation.
All the following must also be true to qualify:
- You complete your initial active duty for training.
- You earn a high school diploma or equivalent, such as a GED, before finishing your initial active duty for training.
- You remain in good standing while serving in an active Selected Reserve unit.
The benefit rate you can earn depends on the type of education or training you’re completing and how many courses you’re taking. For the 2022–2023 academic year, the maximum monthly benefit is $439 for full-time students. The same rates apply whether you’re attending a two-year or four-year college, trade school, or vocational school.
You can apply online for these benefits through the VA website. Before applying, you’ll need to get a Notice of Basic Eligibility from your unit. You’ll also need to ensure your school or training program is eligible.
Tuition Assistance for Reservists
Active-duty reservists of all branches can qualify for tuition assistance. The benefit amount is the same for non-reservists: $250 per semester credit hour, up to $4,500 per year.
You must meet the requirements for tuition assistance to qualify. If you’d like to apply for Top-Up benefits, you need to be eligible for both GI Bill benefits and military tuition assistance.
Does the military pay for college for current students?
If you’re considering attending or enrolled in college, you may be able to get help from the military to fund your education. There are two ways you can get financial assistance while in school.
The Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) is an elective program at colleges and universities to help students pay for school. The program is designed to give students the training and education necessary to become officers upon joining the military after graduation.
Students can choose from one of three programs: Army ROTC, Navy ROTC, or Air Force ROTC. The Navy program covers students interested in joining the Navy or the Marine Corps. No separate ROTC program exists for those interested in joining the Coast Guard.
Each program provides scholarship funding to help pay for school. The benefits you can receive will depend on the program.
|Army ROTC||Navy ROTC||Air Force ROTC|
|Who is eligible?||High school students enrolling in college, currently enrolled students who plan to enlist, and active-duty enlisted soldiers.||High school students enrolling in college, currently enrolled students who plan to enlist, and active-duty service members.||High school students enrolling in college, currently enrolled students who plan to enlist, and active-duty service members.|
|What it pays||100% coverage for full tuition and fees based on merit and grades, and the option to cover room and board instead, for qualifying cases.|
$420 per month, per year, for personal expenses.
$1,200 per year for books.
|100% coverage for full tuition and fees based on merit and grades, and the option to cover room and board instead.|
Up to $400 per month for living expenses, depending on your year of enrollment.
$375 per semester for books.
|100% coverage for tuition and fees at any public or private school with an Air Force ROTC detachment. |
Up to $500 per month for living expenses, depending on your year of enrollment.
$900 per academic year for books.
Each program has individual academic and physical fitness requirements you must meet to qualify. You can apply for ROTC scholarships with your school or online through each ROTC program.
Attending a military academy is another way to get college paid for while you’re in school. If you’re enrolled in one of the five federal undergraduate military academies, you’ll pay nothing for tuition, fees, textbooks, or room and board. You may also receive a stipend for living expenses, depending on which academy you attend.
The five military academies in the U.S. are as follows:
- U.S. Air Force Academy
- U.S. Coast Guard Academy
- U.S. Military Academy (West Point)
- U.S. Naval Academy
- U.S. Merchant Marine Academy
Each academy offers degree programs designed to prepare students for a military career. In the U.S. Naval Academy, for instance, degree programs are centered around the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines. West Point takes a similar approach, but students can also major in philosophy, history, foreign language, or legal studies.
A military academy may sound appealing if you want to go to school with minimal costs. However, getting in can be a challenge. Military schools are highly selective about who they accept. You must prove yourself academically while meeting physical fitness requirements to get a shot at entry.
After graduating, you’re often expected to serve at least five years in the armed forces. Consider whether that fits into your short- and long-term career plans when weighing military academy attendance as a way to pay for college.
How does the military pay for college for veterans?
Veterans can get help paying for college once they’ve completed service. Benefits can also be transferred to eligible spouses or dependents to fund education.
The GI Bill offers funding for undergraduate and graduate study for veterans attending eligible schools. The amount you can get depends on how long you served and the type of GI benefits you apply for. The maximum rate is the full net in-state tuition and mandatory fees for the school you attend.
As we mentioned, the three options for education funding under the GI Bill are:
- Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits (described in detail above).
- Montgomery GI Bill – Active Duty benefits
- Montgomery GI Bill – Selected Reserve benefits (described in detail above).
Montgomery GI Bill – Active Duty (MGIB-AD)
The Montgomery GI Bill – Active Duty program can pay for education and training if you’ve served at least two years on active duty. You must be honorably discharged and qualify in one of four categories.
Here’s how eligibility requirements compare for each category.
|Category I||Category II||Category III||Category IV|
|High school diploma, GED, or 12 hours of college credit required?||✓||✓||✓||✓|
|Other active-duty requirements||You entered active duty for the first time after June 30, 1985.|
Your military pay was reduced by $100 a month for the first 12 months of service.
You’ve served continuously (without a break) for 3 years, or 2 years if that was your agreement when you enlisted, or 4 years if you entered the Selected Reserve within a year of leaving active duty.
|You entered active duty before January 1, 1977 (or before January 2, 1978, under a delayed enlistment program contracted before January 1, 1977).|
You served at least 1 day between October 19, 1984, and June 30, 1985, and stayed on active duty through June 30, 1988 (or through June 30, 1987, if you entered the Selected Reserve within 1 year of leaving active duty and served 4 years).
You had at least 1 day of entitlement left under the Vietnam Era GI Bill (Chapter 34) as of December 31, 1989.
|You don’t qualify for MGIB under categories I or II.|
You had your military pay reduced by $1,200 before separation.
At least one of these is true:
You were on active duty on September 30, 1990, and involuntarily separated (not by your choice) after February 2, 1991.
You involuntarily separated on or after November 30, 1993.
You chose to voluntarily separate under either the Voluntary Separation Incentive (VSI) program or the Special Separation Benefit (SSB) program.
|You had military pay reduced by $100 a month for 12 months or made a $1,200 lump-sum contribution (meaning you paid it all at once).|
At least one of these is true:
You were on active duty on October 9, 1996, had money left in a VEAP account on that date, and chose MGIB before October 9, 1997.
You entered full-time National Guard duty under title 32, USC, between July 1, 1985, and November 28, 1989, and chose MGIB between October 9, 1996, and July 9, 1997.
If you qualify for Montgomery GI Bill – Active Duty benefits, you generally have up to 10 years to use them.
Education benefits can cover costs at eligible schools in the U.S. or foreign schools.
If you opt to use Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, you can’t switch to active-duty benefits later.
You might not qualify for GI Bill benefits as a veteran if you received an other than honorable, bad conduct, or dishonorable discharge.
Other education benefits for veterans
In addition to help with paying for college, veterans can also take advantage of other types of assistance. You may be eligible for any of the following:
- Edith Nourse Rogers STEM Scholarship. This scholarship provides funding to eligible veterans who are receiving Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits and completing a degree program in a STEM field.
- Veteran Employment Through Technology Education Courses (VET TEC). The VET TEC program matches veterans with training providers to help them advance their career schools. Veterans receiving GI Bill benefits are eligible for the program.
- Yellow Ribbon. Veterans are also eligible for the Yellow Ribbon. As we discussed above, you must be GI Bill-eligible to qualify.
- National Call to Service Program. The National Call to Service program is a GI Bill alternative for people who completed a period of national service. Veterans can choose from cash assistance, student loan repayment, or education assistance.
If you’re not sure what benefits you qualify for or need help applying, you can contact a Veterans Service Organization (VSO) or accredited Veterans representative for assistance.
Does the military help with student loan repayment if I’ve already graduated?
If you think you’ll need to use student loans to pay for school or you’ve already taken out loans, you have several options to get the military to help with repaying that debt.
The type of student loan repayment for which you’re eligible can depend on the branch in which you enlist. You must apply for repayment benefits with your specific branch.
Army College Loan Repayment
The Army offers student loan repayment for active-duty service members and reservists. You must agree to a minimum three-year enlistment to qualify for active-duty loan repayment. In exchange, the Army will repay up to $65,000 in education debt for you.
If you’re enrolling as a reservist, you must enlist for at least six years and have taken out your loans before going on active duty. The Army pays up to $20,000 in loan debt. Loan repayment for active-duty and reservist members is only good for federal student loans, not private.
Air Force Student Loan Repayment
Members of the Air Force also have an opportunity to get up to $65,000 in education benefits. The Air Force Judge Advocate General’s Corps (AFJAGC) Student Loan Repayment program is designed for highly qualified JAG officers who serve in the Air Force and hold a JD degree.
To qualify, you must be an active-duty Air Force officer, be serving a duty commitment of at least four years, and have qualifying federal student loans. You must be current on all your loans and be qualified to serve as a judge advocate. Payments are spread out over three years and begin after your first year of service as a JAG officer.
Navy Student Loan Repayment
The Navy offers student loan repayment for eligible sailors. Similar to Army and Air Force student loan repayment, the Navy provides up to $65,000 in funding.
Funding is only available for eligible federal student loans. You can take advantage of these benefits with a minimum three-year service commitment.
National Guard Student Loan Repayment
If you plan to enlist in the National Guard, you could qualify for student loan repayment of eligible federal loans. The program is open to soldiers and officers who enlist for a minimum six-year term. Student loan repayment benefits are capped at $50,000.
In addition to a six-year enlistment period, you need to meet other criteria. For example, you must be enlisted in an eligible position and score at least a 50 on the Armed Forces Qualifying Test if you’re applying for benefits as a non-prior service member.
Other military loan relief
In addition to branch-specific relief, you have other options for help with student loans. For example, you may be eligible for Health Professions Loan Repayment if you plan to work in the medical field when you enlist. The maximum yearly benefit is $40,000, less 25% for taxes, which are deducted prior to lender repayment.
Veterans may be eligible to have their federal student loans discharged if they become permanently disabled. To qualify, you must submit an application for discharge to the Department of Education and provide documentation demonstrating you’re totally and permanently disabled.
Finally, you might consider Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PLSF). The program allows veterans and active-duty service members to have part of their federal education debt forgiven when they make 120 qualifying payments and public service careers. Whether it makes sense to choose loan forgiveness, repayment, or discharge can depend on which allows you to erase the most debt.
Find out more about how to pay for college.