The College Guide for Servicemembers and Veterans

As either an active duty or retired military servicemember, you are an individual who has demonstrated the ability to persevere, meeting the challenges of service and maintaining focus on your own aspirations. The armed forces, too, are committed to bettering you beyond the military framework. So, in recognition of your service, a number of public and private organizations provide financial aid and unique services in order to help you pursue the very best education.

The purpose of this guide is to identify specific programs, based on your contribution to the U.S. Armed Forces, that will further your education. From there, we will also look at how to get the most out of those services.

Today’s all volunteer military offers qualifying high school graduates the opportunity to gain both academic and life experience while serving their country. In order to enlist in the military, recruits should possess either a high school diploma or GED. While completing high school or its equivalent is not mandatory for all branches of the military, not doing so may limit your opportunities. In order to enlist, you must either be a U.S. Citizen or permanent resident of the United States, and you must be at least 17 years old.

The GI Bill

The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, commonly referred to as the GI Bill of Rights, was enacted in 1944. The GI bill is, in some respects the focal point of academic support for members of the military. All honorably discharged servicemembers, along with those who have been discharged due to a service-related disability, are eligible for GI benefits. Chief among the benefits granted to servicemembers under the bill is college tuition assistance, used to fund the pursuit of a degree. Benefits are awarded on a sliding scale based on your length of service, as detailed below.

Length of Service Percentage of Maximum Benefit
36 Months or Longer 100 %
30 Days of continuous service and discharge due to service related disability 100 %
Between 31 months and 36 months 90 %
Between 24 months and 30 months 80 %
Between 18 months and 24 months 70 %
Between 12 months and 18 months 60 %
Between 6 months and 12 months 50 %
At least 90 days and less than 6 months 40 %

You can learn all about the specifics of GI Bill distribution and enforcement in our military financial aid guide.

In addition to GI Bill benefits, each branch of the military has internal programs available to its veterans. Before diving into greater details on specific programs and opportunities, we’ve provided a quick-reference directory of some of the key programs specific to each branch, as well as links to their homepages.

Service Branch Program
U.S. Army
U.S. Navy
U.S. Air Force
U.S. Marine Corps
National Guard
Coast Guard

A Note on Military Skills

While the bulk of this guide is dedicated to academic benefits, arguably the most tangible perk of service, we should not overlook the technical and trade skills so fundamental to military service. Virtually every career and skilled trade in the civilian world is required by the military; engineering, vehicle maintenance, utilities and resource maintenance, to name just a few broad areas.

Furthermore, each branch of the military operates as an independent entity, meaning they do not rely on any external social structures to operate. In order to maximize your post military marketability, you need to take advantage of training, skills assessment testing and certification opportunities that can be rolled over to civilian licenses and designations. In the Education and Training Commands section of this guide, we direct you to the services within each branch of the military that can help you to make the most out of your military duties. As will always be the case, bridging the gap between practical duties and real world professions is central to maximizing your service experience.

Combining Service and Education

There are a range of academic options both active duty and reserve soldiers, sailors and airmen can take advantage of, including online programs, military academies, community colleges tied to the armed forces and regional and national universities.

The advantages of earning a degree while enlisted revolve around the impact on the total cost of your education. Active duty servicemembers can take advantage of up to $18,000 in tuition assistance, paid over four years. When combined with federal aid, state aid and scholarships, there is a distinct possibility that the aid you receive will be enough to cover the bulk, if not all, of a 4-year education.

The negatives to earning a degree while on active duty involve the pursuit of excellence amidst the stressors of active service and the rigors of your academics. While the military prides itself on allotting time for servicemembers to pursue a degree concurrently with service, earning one may not always be a practical affair.

With mandatory class time and a suggested 2 hours of prep for every hour spent in class, college can be incredibly time consuming. And while you may want to strike a balance between active duty and education, your commitment to the military takes precedent. Active servicemembers always face the possibility of immediate deployment, with little or no warning, and certainly without regard to your class schedule.

While most colleges make allowances for such unexpected deployments, the sudden change can prove incredibly stressful. Such difficulties must be thought through when determining the number of credits to take in a semester, or, for that matter, the amount of coursework you expect you’ll need to take to complete your degree following your military career.

As stated, the Army, Air Force and Navy (Marine Corps) each offer servicemembers the opportunity to earn college credits and, in some cases, degrees while serving. These programs are usually offered in partnership with non-military educational institutions, and often come in the form of online coursework. Unlike the degree programs inactive servicemembers or veterans choose and register for on their own, these programs are generally administered, in some fashion, by the military branch themselves. We’ve identified some of the most common education portals available to active servicemembers:

  • eArmyU: Active duty soldiers who participate in the program have access to hundreds of degree and certificate programs including graduate level programs. The classes are all web-based, which enables soldiers to fit their class time around their scheduled duties. Since the online program is offered by the Army rather than a single college, students are able to take classes from multiple colleges.
  • College of the American Soldier: Another Army program, this college is divided into two paths: one for career non-commissioned officers and the other for enlisted personnel. The program offers both degree and non-degree programs. Flexible scheduling means soldier students can sign up for classes and programs offered by over two dozen schools.
  • Community College of the Air Force: To satisfy the needs of airmen, the Air Force created its own federally-chartered institution of higher education. The CCAF partners with 106 Air Force schools and 82 education service offices located internationally to provide a pathway to higher education for active duty members.
  • Navy College Program: For forty years, the Navy College Program has overseen course enrollment for the Navy’s active duty sailors. Beyond the support offered for undergraduate and graduate degrees, the Navy College also maintains a robust selection of apprenticeships and technical training programs.

Education for Discharged or Retired Servicemembers

If you were recently discharged or retired and are now ready to begin or complete your education, there are some things you will need to do in order to ensure you are ready to take full advantage of your military status.

Assuming you plan to enroll in a part-time or full-time school, you should start by collecting all military paperwork for the application process. Collect the following:

  • A valid civilian id
  • Your discharge papers
  • All documentation related to courses, certificates and degrees earned while enlisted

The branch you have served under will be readily able to produce much of this documentation. Be sure to communicate with the particular administrators within the branch well ahead of any application deadlines – financial aid included. You’ll of course want to be sure to also collect the paperwork schools ask of all students, such as test scores (some of which you may have set aside time to take), high school transcripts, recommendations and writing samples.

As we’ll detail in the following section, much of your experience in the military will impact the number of credits and particular courses you are required to take within a program. Always make a point to understand your credit-earning opportunities prior to enrollment and make sure all relevant paperwork is squared away.

Never underestimate the complexity of the application or transfer application process, especially when you need to coordinate multiple benefit programs, such as arranging your GI Bill benefits, FAFSA application and scholarship money. Many institutions have programs expressly for the benefit of veterans, which is why it is crucial to talk to an admissions counselor at your school of choice in order to get a clear and comfortable picture of the entire process.

Here we’ll survey a series of particular programs and requirements of the education process. All of which servicemembers, both active and retired, should be mindful of as they undertake their coursework.


As part of the Department of Defense’s commitment to assisting active, reserve and veteran members of the military achieve their goals, it has instituted the Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support (DANTES) program. In effect, DANTES allows students to obtain college and career training credits via testing. Such tests are intended to measure and give credit for knowledge acquired through military experience and training. The tests are administered on military bases and national testing facilities. While there are varying fees to take a test, funding is available for active duty, National Guard and reserve troops; see the links to funding eligibility charts under exam descriptions to learn more. DANTES programs are typically comprised of two types of tests that award credit:

  • DSST Exams: There are over 30 different DSST exams, all of which are intended to measure knowledge gained outside of a traditional classroom setting. Tests are divided into six categories: business, humanities, math, physical science, social science and technology. Learn more about exam funding.
  • CLEP Exams: Similar to the DSST exams, CLEP (College Level Examination Program) was developed by the College Board to enable colleges and universities to measure a student’s understanding of the coursework typically taken by first or second year students. Passing a CLEP examination means you can earn anywhere from 3 to 12 college credits, potentially depending on how high you scored. The 33 CLEP tests fall into five areas: history & social sciences, composition & literature, science & math, business and world languages. Learn more about exam funding.

Troops to Teachers

This program was developed by the Department of Defense as a way of encouraging and assisting qualified veterans to make the transition from military service to service as a public school teacher. The program incorporates educational counseling and guidance on the steps needed to obtain certification, financial assistance, prep for Praxis Series tests, which are required for teacher certification, and job placement. In order to register for the program you need the following documented:

  • Military service information (including warzone information)
  • Current level of education
  • Teaching certification (if applicable)
  • Your K-12 employment history

The DANTES program has counselors available to aid active and transitioning members of the armed forces in navigating the DANTES system as they plan their post service education and career objectives.

Beyond the exam prep and the actual tests administered, DANTES also offers its own brand of distance learning. Active and inactive servicemembers interested in distance learning opportunities are first advised to take the DANTES Self Assessment test in order to gauge their readiness for the requirements of a distance learning environment.

Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges Degree Network System

The SOC program is intended to meet the needs of servicemembers and their families who would like to attend college but find it difficult due to the highly mobile nature of military service. Begun in 1972, the program works closely with multiple higher education associations, the Department of Defense (DOD) and active and reserve components of each branch of service to develop and enhance access to higher education.

Formerly, the SOC system was divided into separate programs for each division of the military, as of January 1st, 2015, the DOD consolidated the various SOC branches into a single Degree Network System. The main purpose of the system is to ensure any course taken through SOC is fully transferrable, sparing students and their family members the hardship of lost credits due to frequent transfers. The consortium works closely with more than 1,700 schools, serving hundreds of thousands of military students.

American Council on Education

DANTES has formed a partnership with the American Council on Education (ACE) in order to ensure that active duty and separated military servicemembers can earn academic credit for the knowledge and training received during their service. ACE acts as an advocate on behalf of current and former servicemembers by:

  • Acting as a point of contact with government agencies, including Congress, on matters of higher education
  • Working to keep colleges and universities informed of important public policy issues affecting higher education
  • Actively promoting innovation in the advancement of adult learning in general and for veterans in particular

ACE works in conjunction with the DOD’s Joint Services Transcript program to coordinate and consolidate the efforts of each of the service branches to provide a record of veterans and active duty servicemembers training and experience. JST transcripts are accepted by 2,400 institutions, about 34 percent of all colleges. Therefore, universities and servicemembers are advised to check with prospective schools before relying on JST transcripts for credit. The following are sample JST transcripts for each branch of the military:

College of the American Soldier

The College of the American Soldier provides two distinct education programs for active duty Army soldiers, reserves and National Guard members included. The college operates in conjunction with more than two dozen higher education institutions to provide individualized academic tracks for both enlisted servicemembers and NCOs.

  • NCO Program: The NCO program is built on a base of civilian degrees that then incorporate components essential to military career advancement. All credits earned in the program are fully transferable; credits earned and reported on JST transcripts are also accepted.
  • Enlisted Education Program: The Enlisted Education program of the College of the American Soldier is intended for entry-level servicemembers who have limited or no college background. It is designed to allow them to complete an associate’s degree during their first enlistment. As with the NCO program, all credits are fully transferable among the more than two dozen participating schools. The Enlisted Education Program also participates in ACE sponsored Joint Services Transcripts.

Education and Training Commands by Branch

As we mentioned at the beginning of this guide, a major part of the military experience is a formal and informal education in technical skills. Education and Training Command services specific to each branch allow servicemembers to actively pursue a specific, vocational or practical military skill under that branch’s unique tutelage. While this work does not necessarily carry over to formal class time or credits, it is a valuable resource for all members of the military eager to further refine a service-based expertise.

  • Naval Education and Training Command: This program is administered by the Department of the Navy to provide seamen and officers educational opportunities geared toward professional development.
  • Air Education and Training Command: This program, exclusive to members of the Air Force, was developed to improve and enhance the basic military training and technical acumen of airmen.
  • U.S. Marine Corps: Education and Training Command: Developed by the Marine Corps, this TEC’s purpose is to build better marines by providing advanced training in concepts, policies and planning.
  • U.S. Coast Guard Educational Services: Intended to meet the unique educational needs of Coast Guard servicemembers, the program provides assistance for active duty personnel who wish to attend college.
As an active duty or separated military service member, your place on a college campus is unique, given that most young college students have experienced little beyond their lives as students. Even in adult learning settings, your past or present military service will provide you with a singular perspective.

The training, discipline and commitment essential to your service, combined with any foreign service you may have experienced, has exposed you to cultures and locales far removed from civilian life. When considered responsibly, these experiences can be communicated as insights and opinions your peers may never have considered, the sort of meaningful contribution welcomed throughout collegiate academics.

That being said, it is equally important to understand that when you attend classes, you are not in a military environment. The attitudes and behavior of your peers, sometimes much younger than you in both age and maturity, may differ from your own. While the serious, business-minded attitude developed during service is valuable, you should keep in mind that not everyone will appreciate or respond to a militaristic demeanor. Moderating your attitude can go a long way towards a more positive assimilation into an undergraduate or graduate classroom.

Beyond the classroom, campus life can offer you opportunities to put your leadership training and skills to good use. Social and civic student organizations can benefit from your example and experiences as a member of the Armed Forces.

Practically speaking, your experiences may also provide an edge in landing private sector internships, which must oftentimes be sought out with little help from your college or university. Such extracurricular pursuits can make your professional prospects all the more solid.

Financing Your Education

As generous as the GI Bill’s benefits are, there is one very important fact to keep in mind: the benefits are finite. First, you must request them within 15 years of your discharge or you will lose them forever. They then will only pay for up to 36 months of your education. Finally, they may not sufficiently cover all of your education expenses, which is why you should take full advantage of all forms of financial aid. Consult our guide dedicated entirely to the financial aid opportunities all members of the military must consider.

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