With 1.3 million active-duty service members, the U.S. military is the largest employer in the nation. Educational opportunities remain one of its most generous benefits. In partnership with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Department of Defense (DoD), many colleges and universities in the U.S. offer special benefits for veterans and active-duty military personnel. The VA created the first of these benefits, the GI Bill, in 1944. In addition to the Montgomery GI Bill and Post-9/11 GI Bill, current and former service members can access programs such as the Fry Scholarship and tuition assistance.
Military participation continues to wane in the U.S., with the VA projecting a 32% decline by 2037. According to the VA, there were 20.4 million veterans living in the U.S. in 2016. By 2037, the VA projects this number will be just 13.6 million. The U.S. veteran population will also be younger and ready to enter a competitive workforce where a degree can make a big difference.
The Importance of Military Status
Military status impacts an individual’s eligibility for education benefits programs. Other factors include length of military service and time of enlistment. For example, the Post-9/11 GI Bill only assists military members who served in active duty in the U.S. armed forces after September 10, 2001. Military status can also impact benefits eligibility for dependents.
- Active-Duty Military: Military members designated as active-duty work full-time in the military and can deploy overseas at any time. To qualify for Montgomery GI Bill benefits, an individual must have at least two years of active-duty service. For the Post-9/11 GI Bill, military members must serve 90 aggregate days on active duty after September 10, 2001.
- Inactive-Duty Military: Inactive-duty service members usually serve in a reserve unit or the National Guard. These individuals must partake in active drilling and may deploy in times of crisis. While in the Selected Reserve, individuals may receive Montgomery GI Bill benefits. For Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, inactive-duty personnel must serve at least 90 days.
- Discharged (Multiple Types): To qualify for VA benefits, an individual must discharge from military service under honorable, general, or other than dishonorable reasons. If an individual leaves the military with a bad conduct discharge or dishonorable discharge, the VA will review any potential benefits.
- Retired/Veteran: For the Montgomery GI Bill, there are four eligibility categories based on an individual’s time of enlistment and length of service. The majority of people fall into Category I or II. For the Post-9/11 GI Bill, retired personnel and veterans must have served at least 90 days.
Government Benefits for Military Students
The Post-9/11 GI Bill
The Post-9/11 GI Bill became law in 2008. The new version of the GI Bill enhanced education benefits for veterans and active-duty service members who enlisted after September 10, 2001. Recipients may choose to use the VA-administered funds for either college classes or on-the-job training. The Post-9/11 GI Bill can pay a student’s full tuition and fees at a public in-state school. For private and out-of-state schools, the bill can cover up to the national maximum. The Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act decrees that in order to receive military benefits, all public colleges and universities must charge qualified veterans and their dependents in-state tuition, regardless of where they actually live.
A student’s military service determines the percentage of benefits for which they are eligible. After 90 aggregate days of service, service members qualify for 40% of the maximum amount. Service members who serve at least 36 months on active duty after September 10, 2001 qualify for 100% of benefits.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill also added two programs: the Yellow Ribbon Program and the transfer of entitlement option. Through the Yellow Ribbon Program, military-friendly colleges offer funding for any additional costs not covered by the GI Bill. The VA then matches the school’s contribution. These funds can assist with housing, tuition, books, supplies, and relocation. Transfer of entitlement allows service members to transfer unused benefits to their spouse or dependent children. Service members must request to transfer their benefits while they are still serving on active duty.
The Montgomery GI Bill
In 1984, the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 was reborn as the Montgomery GI Bill. Like the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the Montgomery GI Bill offers assistance with education and housing. The Montgomery GI Bill Active Duty (MGIB-AD) assists active-duty members who serve at least two years. Recipients must contribute $100 each month for at least a year. The Montgomery GI Bill Selected Reserve (MGIB-SR) benefits reservists in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard Reserve, Army National Guard, or Air National Guard. Recipients must actively drill and agree to serve for at least six years in the Selected Reserve.
Former and current military members can apply Montgomery GI benefits toward a college degree or certificate from one of the nation’s many military-friendly colleges. These funds can also pay for co-op training, technical classes, licenses, certificates, or vocational courses. Eligible service members may receive benefits up to 36 months, which equates to eight semesters of postsecondary study.
Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges
Since military personnel move frequently, it can be difficult to earn a degree or certificate in one place. In order to address this issue, the DoD funds Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges (SOCs), a consortium of around 1,900 military-friendly colleges that help expand educational opportunities for military members and their family.
These military-friendly colleges accept all transfer credits from other SOC schools. SOCs also reduce residency requirements and provide additional benefits to military members and their families. Students attending military-friendly colleges online may receive credits for prior military training.
The SOC programs for each branch include SOCAD (Army), SOCNAV (Navy), SOCMAR (Marine Corps), SOCCOAST (Coast Guard), and SOCGuard (Army National Guard). The Air Force operates its own program through the Community College of the Air Force.
What Does It Mean for a School to Be Military-Friendly?
For current and former military members pursuing a nursing degree, the process begins with choosing a school. When weighing the pros and cons of military-friendly colleges, be sure to look into tuition and total cost, credit policy, and academic programs. For example, prospective college students looking to earn their RN-to-BSN degree online can immediately eliminate any military-friendly online colleges that do not offer nursing programs. Other considerations include degree completion options, program start dates, and residency requirements.
- Tuition Discounts for Military: As authorized by Congress, all U.S. military branches have the power to pay up to 100% college tuition and fees for service members. Tuition assistance caps at $4,500 per fiscal year for the Air Force, Army, Navy, and the Marine Corps, and at $2,250 for the Coast Guard. Montgomery GI Bill recipients can also apply any Top-Up Program funds to offset high-cost courses at a military-friendly college.
- Credit Opportunities: Military-friendly colleges in the SOC network simplify credit transfers for military students. Military-friendly online colleges also award credit for military training, service, work experience, exams, and certifications. These options can reduce the number of credits students need to graduate.
- Financial Aid: Every year, millions of students submit a FAFSA application to establish their eligibility for federal scholarships, grants, and work-study programs. Military members and their eligible dependents must do the same. However, students must apply through the VA for tuition assistance and Montgomery GI Bill benefits. Military-friendly colleges offer VA-approved training and education programs that qualify for benefits. Students must then complete the WAVE process to finalize benefits distribution.
- On-Campus Benefits: Military-friendly schools may offer benefits such as discounted or affordable housing, career support, counseling, and vocational services. Certain military-friendly schools also offer self-paced training for veterans in such areas as computer skills and writing.
- Academic Programs: Each military-friendly college and university offers different programs. Some schools offer programs specifically targeted to service members, including aviation and military history. Most military-friendly online colleges offer degrees and certificates for popular majors, including RN-to-BSN.
- Flexibility: Military-friendly online colleges and universities develop programs that can accommodate working students’ schedules. RNs pursuing their BSN at an online military-friendly college should look for asynchronous classes and accelerated terms.