Editor’s note: This is one in a series of pieces that make up the Military Times 2018 Benefits Guide. Read or download the entire e-book here.

While service members can begin to use their GI Bill benefits while on active duty, they also can receive significant aid from their service branch in pursuit of higher education. Here’s how that tuition assistance works, and why you’ll need to keep your grades up:

What it is: TA is a federal benefit that covers the cost of tuition, up to particular limits, for active-duty service members, as well as some National Guardsmen and reservists. The funds are paid directly to schools by the service branches.

Eligibility: Each service has its own requirements.

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  • Coast Guard and Air Force: No service-length requirement, though the Coast Guard has unit-specific requirements and requires commanding officer approval. All Air Force officers incur a service requirement if they use TA.
  • Navy: Sailors must wait until they’ve been at their first permanent duty station for a year, unless they get a waiver.
  • Army: One-year waiting period after completion of Advanced Individual Training, Basic Officer Leader Course or Warrant Officer Basic Course.
  • Marine Corps: 24-month waiting period, plus other conditions.
  • Guard/Reserve: Soldiers who are activated or on drill status are eligible under the same conditions as active-duty Army personnel. Air National Guardsmen and reservists of other branches are eligible for TA if 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.

Limits: The Defense Department caps tuition assistance at $250 per semester hour and $4,500 per fiscal year. The Coast Guard recently decreased its annual cap to $2,250 per year, down from $4,000. The Navy and Army set limits at 16 semester hours per year.

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. Some branches require you to create a degree plan or take a branch-specific course before your TA benefits are approved.

Grades: 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 require service members to earn a “C” grade or better for undergraduate courses and a “B” grade or better for graduate courses; anything lower requires reimbursement to the U.S. Treasury.

In the Air Force, service members must maintain a grade-point average of at least 2.0 for undergraduate work or 3.0 for graduate work. They are eligible for the benefit again once they have raised their GPA above the threshold.

Schools: 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 and certified to participate in federal student aid programs.

TA or GI Bill?: If you have served for at least 90 days on active duty since Sept. 10, 2001, then you are eligible to receive Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits. You may use these benefits 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. 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.

Action items: Search for schools that have signed DoD’s memorandum of understanding here. To apply for TA, visit your nearest education service center or visit your branch’s education website for details.

Need more? Head to Military Times Rebootcamp for the latest in military education news, as well as updates to transition benefits and scholarship opportunities.