Did you know that you can earn a degree in the military without spending a penny of your own money and without using up any of your GI Bill benefits?

Through a benefit called tuition assistance, or TA, active-duty service members can take classes in pursuit of a college degree on the military’s dime.

TA covers $250 per semester hour, with a yearly cap, but each service can set its own requirements, and some rules vary.

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Here’s everything you need to know about the rules governing TA, as well as some tips for getting the most out of the benefit.

Army

TA usage limits:

  • Up to $4,000 per year
  • Up to 130 semester hours toward an undergraduate degree
  • Up to 39 semester hours toward a graduate degree
  • Up to 21 semester hours toward a certificate

As a first step, soldiers should establish a GoArmyEd account – even if they aren’t quite ready to start school – according to Pamela Raymer, chief of the Army Continuing Education System under Human Resources Command.

This account will give them access to an interactive tool with information about the careers they can pursue, the income they can expect from those careers, the degrees that support those careers and the colleges that offer those degrees, she said. Schools must be registered with GoArmyEd and accredited by agencies recognized by the Education Department to be included.

Recently, the Army ended a policy that required soldiers to delay using TA for one year from the time they complete Advanced Individual Training, for enlisted troops, or the initial Basic Officer Leader Course, for officers. This rule-change opened up the benefit to nearly 95,000 additional soldiers, Raymer said. The Army also recently waived a rule that required troops who used TA to earn a bachelor’s degree to wait 10 years before using the benefit toward a master’s. Service members must complete advanced-level military training for that rule to be waived.

Soldiers can also receive college credit based on their military training, Raymer said, although each school decides for itself which credits it will accept. It takes soldiers an average of five years to complete an undergraduate degree and another five to finish a graduate degree, she said.

“Don't wait. Get started now,” Raymer said. “Use your military training to jump start that degree. Education is something no one can take away from you.”

Navy

TA usage limits:

  • Up to $4,500 per year
  • No semester-hour limits

In June, the Navy rescinded its previous cap of 16 semester hours of TA per year, while bumping up the annual dollar limit from $4,000 to $4,500. This gave sailors “more control and flexibility in their pursuit of higher education,” according to a NavAdmin issued in May. The Navy has also instituted an automated approval process for TA requests and has begun allowing sailors to use the benefit toward certificates.

“With the new TA changes — $4,500 cap and no credit hour limits — TA dollars can go a long way, especially considering that some schools charge less than $50 per semester hour,” said Ernest D’Antonio, director of Navy Voluntary Education.

Tuition assistance covers $250 per semester hour, with a yearly cap, but each service can set its own requirements.
Tuition assistance covers $250 per semester hour, with a yearly cap, but each service can set its own requirements.

D’Antonio told Military Times that sailors should contact the Navy College Virtual Education Center or OCONUS Navy College Office to discuss their education goals before applying to college.

“Make sure you have the full support of your command and your family before using TA,” he said. “If a sailor's operational tempo or responsibilities at home won't allow them to prepare properly for their classes, the end result could be wasted money due to mandatory payback for earning bad grades.”

More information for sailors interested in learning more about TA can be found at https://www.navycollege.navy.mil/.

Air Force

TA usage limits:

  • Up to $4,500 per year
  • Up to 124 semester hours toward an undergraduate degree
  • Up to 42 semester hours toward a graduate degree

Airmen considering TA should consult with their base-level education counselor to identify career interests and come up with a plan of action, said Capt. Carrie Volpe, a spokeswoman for the Secretary of the Air Force.

“Execute the plan of action, stay committed, and utilize your maximum yearly tuition assistance benefits,” she said.

Volpe also recommends exploring college programs that maximize academic credit for the knowledge and skills airmen already have. Some schools participate in the Air University Associate to Baccalaureate Cooperative Program, she said. That program guarantees that graduates of the Community College of the Air Force will not be required to take more than 60 semester hours to complete a bachelor’s degree, “thus minimizing the amount of (TA) and the time needed to complete a baccalaureate degree.”

Airmen who log into the Air Force Virtual Education Center can review their education record and find additional information about TA, Community College of the Air Force, the Career Skills Program and more.

Marine Corps

TA usage limits:

  • Up to $4,500 per year
  • Up to two courses per semester

The Marine Corps also recently changed its TA requirements to let Marines use the benefit earlier in their careers.

Marines who have been in the service for 18 months and “demonstrate significant extraordinary effort beyond the fulfillment of all assignments and normal expectations” can use TA, at an O-5 level commander’s discretion, under the latest policy released in May. The previous policy required Marines to wait two years.

Jim Gallisdorfer, strategic communications manager for the Future Operations Branch of Marine and Family Programs, said before Marines apply for TA, they should review the MARADMIN 255/18 for more details on the benefit, such as grade-point average requirements. They should also meet with education staff at their respective installations.

It takes soldiers an average of five years to complete an undergraduate degree and another five to finish a graduate degree, said Pamela Raymer, chief of the Army Continuing Education System. (Josh Anderson/AP)
It takes soldiers an average of five years to complete an undergraduate degree and another five to finish a graduate degree, said Pamela Raymer, chief of the Army Continuing Education System. (Josh Anderson/AP)

Marines also need to complete two courses before signing up for TA. One is Higher Education Preparation, available at no cost on Joint Knowledge Online, Gallisdorfer said. The other is Personal Financial Management, available on MarineNet.

“Higher education is expensive, so understanding the financial management principles provided in this course is critical,” he said.

One other way Marines can set themselves up for success is by taking the Test of Adult Basic Education, or TABE, Gallisdorfer said, especially if their general technical scores were low on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test Test prep resources are available through the Marine Corps Community Services Libraries.

Coast Guard

TA usage limits:

  • Up to $2,250 per year
  • Up to 130 semester hours toward an undergraduate degree
  • Up to 40 semester hours toward a graduate degree

“The ultimate goal for using tuition assistance is the obtainment of a degree,” said Public Affairs Officer Lisa Novak. “Establishing educational goals will help members identify their field of study, narrow down school selection, and, equally important, create a plan for completing their degree.”

You should take cost into account. Programs that charge above the $250-per-semester-hour cap could result in out-of-pocket tuition expenses for the service member.

“Maximizing the usage of tuition assistance requires consideration of a school not only based on accreditation and reputation, but also financial advantage,” Novak said. “Considering financial advantage as an additional criterion for school selection may be the difference between the tuition assistance benefit funding three courses or four.”

Coast Guard members should also take advantage of credit-by-exam options, tests that measure college-level readiness and allow service members to earn college credit. These tests “reduce the amount of time it takes to complete your degree, and, most important, reduce the overall costs associated with completing your degree,” Novak said. And when taken at approved testing sites, these exams are offered at no cost.