|See also: Post-9/11 GI Bill Education Guide|
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include clarification of tuition assistance benefits for reservists.
What is tuition assistance?
Tuition assistance, informally called TA, is a federal benefit that covers the cost of tuition, up to particular limits, for active-duty service members of the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard, as well as some National Guardsmen and reservists.
The funds are paid directly to schools by the service branches.
Are there limits or specific requirements?
Generally, TA funds can be used to pursue a higher degree than what you have already earned, up to the master's degree level. If you have a bachelor's degree, you can use it to pursue a graduate degree — not an associate or second bachelor's, though there are some exceptions.
The Department of Defense caps tuition assistance at $250 per semester hour and $4,500 per fiscal year. The Coast Guard has an annual cap of $4,000 per year, and the Navy and Army set limits at 16 semester hours per year.
Keep in mind that some branches require you to create a degree plan or take a branch-specific course before your TA benefits are approved.
If you do not perform well in a class or need to withdraw for reasons other than personal illness or military duty, you will be required to pay back the funds used for that course. All branches set the threshold at a "C" grade for undergraduate courses and "B" for graduate school; anything lower requires reimbursement to the U.S. Treasury.
GPA matters, too. For example, in the Navy, if sailors have a GPA of 2.0 or lower, they are required to see a Navy college education counselor. In the Air Force, future TA funds will not be approved if, after 15 semester hours at the undergraduate level, an airman has a GPA lower than 2.0 or 3.0 at the graduate level after six semester hours.
When can I start using TA?
Coast Guardsmen can start using TA right after joining, provided they meet unit-specific requirements and are approved by their commanding officer. There is also no service-length requirement in the Air Force.
Among other conditions, Marines must be in the service for 24 months before accessing TA funds, according to Heather Hagan, a public affairs officer with the Marine & Family Programs Division, who cautioned that the information was current as of August 2016. Navy sailors can start using TA after being at their first permanent duty station for one year unless they receive a waiver from their commanding officer to begin using TA sooner.
The Army also has a one-year waiting period after completion of Advanced Individual Training or Basic Officer Leader Course.
Army Continuing Education System Chief Pamela Raymer recommends that in the meantime, soldiers visit their local education center "to understand other education opportunities during the one-year wait and to be fully prepared to start taking college classes when they become eligible."
Is this benefit just for active-duty service members?
If you are a member of the Army Reserve or Army National Guard, either on drill status or full-time Active Guard Reserve, you are eligible for federal TA funds on a first-come, first-served basis one year after completing AIT or BOLC.
Air National Guardsmen and reservists of other branches are eligible for TA once they are activated, and the use of TA often comes with a service obligation for a certain amount of time once the last course is completed.
Guardsmen may also be eligible for help with tuition from their state.
Can I use these benefits anywhere?
Not exactly, but there are a lot of schools to pick from.
In order to accept tuition assistance funds, colleges and universities must sign a memorandum of understanding with the DoD, agreeing to comply with a set of rules related to recruiting and educating military students. To enter into the agreement, institutions must be regionally or nationally accredited, state-approved to accept the GI Bill, certified to participate in federal student aid programs and compliant with state authorization requirements.
Thousands of institutions have signed the memorandum of understanding, and you can search for schools by name or see a full list online at www.dodmou.com.
"Selecting a degree and an academic institution is a serious decision," Raymer said. "Soldiers should take some time to research and assess the merits of a degree and an academic institution."
The Marine Corps’ Hagan notes that education service officers, or ESOs, and academic advisors are available to assist with educational choices, including Joint Service Transcript and the American Council on Education’s college credit recommendations.
"ESOs provide high quality, individualized academic advisement, offer a full breadth of tuition funding sources, and determine how the Marine can advance their degree plan and academic achievement with appropriate courses and institution selections," she said.
Can I use TA with the Post-9/11 GI Bill?
If you have served for at least 90 days on active duty since September 10, 2001, then you are eligible to receive Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs. Generally, the longer you serve, the larger the benefit, and at 36 months you are eligible for the full amount.
You may use the Post-9/11 GI Bill while on active duty, though experts suggest using your tuition assistance first. If you take advantage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill while you’re still active, you will not receive an additional monthly housing stipend with the benefit as you would if you waited until separating from the military. Depending on the location of your school, the monthly housing allowance can be a pretty hefty sum.
If you choose to use it while on active duty to supplement the cost of your education not covered by TA, you will need to apply for veterans benefits and contact your school’s certifying official who will formally submit your enrollment in VA benefits.
How do I get started?
Head to your nearest education service center or visit your branch’s education website to get started!