Using Your Education Benefits While on Active Duty
Like many Soldiers and service members, I went to college after high school and failed miserably. I went because it was expected of me and I didn’t know what else I should be doing with my life. I didn’t know anything except for that I wanted to have a good time. Fast forward three years to 2006 and you would find me, a college dropout with no plan, sitting in the recruiter’s office. I had finally had enough.
After two years of school at Jacksonville State University in Alabama (ironically nicknamed “Just Show Up”) I left with only 24 semester hours. I wasn’t that great of a student, and my work ethic sucked. As it turns out, I was pretty good at soldiering and managed to knock out quite a few military schools and training opportunities in my years of service. Thirteen years later, and I finally earned my Bachelor’s Degree. A little late, but it was all free and just as good as anybody else’s piece of paper.
I finally got serious about finishing my degree in 2018 with some motivation from my girlfriend at the time. I chose to go with Post University which is a “real school”, offers online courses and is regionally accredited. I ended up going with Post because they gave me the most credit towards a degree, but there are lots of other good schools out there. I submitted my Joint Service Transcript (JST) and, combined with my few credits from before the Army, I was sitting pretty at 75 semester hours towards my degree plan.
Now, for those of you who do not know, the JST is a program used by (I think) every service branch which summarizes your military training based on what is uploaded in IPERMS (electronic file). It then translates that training into any possible, suggested credit hours that your school might accept towards a degree plan. In other words, you may not need the course that you get credit for from that training, but they will still offer the suggestion to your school.
I am speaking from an active-duty Army Soldier’s experience, so details and facts may vary by component and branch. I used the Army’s Tuition Assistance (TA) program, which grants you $4000 per fiscal year to use towards an Associates, Bachelors, and/or Masters as well as academic programs and certificates (the Army changed the cap from $4500 to 4000 in FY19). You can use it for one of each degree type, but you cannot go backward and use TA for a level of education below one that you already possess (i.e., using TA for an AA if you already have a BS). The classes I took were $750 each, which worked out nicely to 5-6 courses per FY, all for free. You can use TA for up to 16 semester hours per FY, for a total of 130 hours towards an undergraduate degree and 39 semester hours towards a graduate degree. Additionally, I also qualified for FASFA (Federal Student Aid) as a single Sergeant First Class paying child support. So I was able to knock out two classes every eight weeks, nonstop until I earned my degree, ALL FOR FREE. I even got money back from the school, which I was able to use for other things.
Tuition Assistance is now available to all active duty Soldiers upon completion of AIT. There are more specific rules for certain circumstances which I will not be discussing due to wanting to keep the length short and concise. To use TA is simple. Enroll into the school of your choice (most prefer online courses), and then register for your classes. Next you log into goarmyed, look up your school information and locate the actual class that you are requesting TA for. That’s it! You have to request TA for each class individually, every time and it must be done prior to the start date of each course. For enlisted Soldiers there is no obligation to use TA, officers will occur an additional service obligation if they use TA.
Taking a bunch of college classes can be daunting and overwhelming to think about, especially if you have been out of school for a while, have a busy training schedule, family and kids, I get it. There are 100 excuses you can make up about working too much or not having time but guys, you can do it, even if it is one class at a time. Once you knock out the first couple, you get into a rhythm, and it is so much easier. I highly encourage everyone who is on active duty to use your benefits and work towards your civilian education. Whether you stay in for three years or 25, it will help you in the long run, and you might as well have your rich uncle pay for it.
When you get out of the Army, you are going to be diving into a workplace that is highly competitive, and you are going to want that piece of paper that says you were dedicated and motivated enough to finish your degree. You guys and gals that are looking at making Sergeant First Class, First Sergeant, and Sergeant Major, guess what... college education is going to separate you from your peers. When everybody has their EIB, a CIB, Ranger tab or whatever your MOS equivalent is, that piece of paper is going to make a difference.
Update - two years after writing this article, I am back in school. I am still on active duty serving in the 82nd Airborne Division. I was accepted to the University of Alabama for a Masters of Science program in Marketing, with a concentration in Digital and Social media. There was no GMAT requirement due to covid-19, so all it took was a good GPA from my undergraduate graduate program, a well written resume, some letters of recommendation and a statement of purpose. I am about to enroll in my third and fourth course, needing only 10 total for the degree. Here's where the TA program is a little different.... These graduate level courses that I am taking cost more per semester hour than the previous courses I took. For these, the cost is $500 per SH, or $1500 per class. Now, the Army still pays up to $4000 per FY, however they only pay up to $250 per SH. So, that being said, the Army pays for half of each class I take ($750/$1500). I pay the rest out of pocket. For your graduate degree (Masters), you do NOT qualify for FASFA, so that is out the window. If your program is 30 semester hours like mine, you will end up paying roughly $7,500 for your entire degree. I don't think that's bad, if you intend on using your degree in your post military job field. Most schools also have interest free payment plans. My goal is to have my degree completed before I get out of the Army so I can focus entirely on my new career, instead of worrying about going to school as the weird old guy.
Everyone knows about and talks about the GI Bill, but why don't more people use their TA? It's literally free money. All you have to do is commit to using your time. I know what everyone says is "Oh I don't have time at my unit", but I call bullshit. If a Platoon Sergeant or First Sergeant can make time, a Private or Specialist can too. Most of the classes don't actually require THAT much time spent per week. If you watch TV or play Xbox an hour a day, then you definitely have time to take college. It's not for everybody, I get it, but eventually you will say "damn, I wish I started this earlier."