The College Guide for Servicemembers and Veterans

As either an active-duty or retired servicemember, you are an individual who has demonstrated the ability to persevere, meeting the challenges of service and maintaining focus on your aspirations. A number of public and private organizations provide financial aid and unique services to active-duty and veteran servicemembers to help them pursue higher education and adapt to civilian life.

Many military members learn skills that are applicable outside of the military, including engineering, vehicle maintenance, and utilities and resource maintenance.

When leaving the military, it's important to take advantage of training, skills assessment testing, and certification opportunities that can be transferred towards 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.

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. 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 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. Since its creation, multiple chapters have been added, providing active-duty servicemembers and veterans more opportunities to enroll in higher education. Other chapters include the Montgomery GI Bill, the Vocational Rehabilitation Program, and Post 9/11. The bill's most recent expansion, the Post-9/11 GI Bill, provides more educational benefits to servicemembers and veterans who have 90 or more days of active duty on, or after, 9/11/01. Added coverage for the Post-9/11 GI Bill includes a living allowance, money for books, and the ability to transfer unused education benefits to spouses and children. All honorably discharged servicemembers, along with those who have been discharged due to a service-related disability, are eligible for GI benefits. Among the benefits granted to servicemembers under the bill is college tuition assistance.

Since being implemented in Aug. 1, 2009, the Post-9/11 GI Bill has provided benefits to 773,000 veterans. The National Center for Education Statistics reported an increase of veteran and active-duty students after the release of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, most of which attended two-year and four-year programs. GI 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 Post-9/11 GI Bill distribution and enforcement in our military financial aid guide.

In addition to Post-9/11 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 and links to their homepages.

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

Combining Service and Education

There are a range of academic options that active duty and reserve soldiers, sailors, and airmen can take advantage of, including online programs, military academies, military sponsored community colleges, 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 four-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 two 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 unexpected deployments, the sudden change can prove incredibly stressful. Military students should keep this in mind when determining how many credits to take per semester or the amount of coursework you expect you'll need to take to complete your degree.

The Army, Air Force, and Navy (including the 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 programs that inactive servicemembers and veterans take, these programs are generally administered by the military branch themselves. We've identified some of the most common education portals available to active servicemembers:

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.

You should collect all military paperwork for the application process, which includes:

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

The branch you have served under can provide much of this documentation. Be sure to communicate with the particular administrators within the branch well ahead of any application deadlines – financial aid included. The school may require test scores, high school transcripts, recommendations, and writing samples.

Your experience in the military will impact the number of credits and particular courses you are required to take within a program. Know what your credit-earning opportunities are prior to enrollment and make sure you have all required coursework.

Never underestimate the complexity of the application or transfer application process, especially when you need to coordinate multiple benefit programs, such as arranging your Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, FAFSA application, and scholarship money. Many institutions have a veterans center that can help with any issues.

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

DANTES

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 Nontraditional Education Support (DANTES) program. In effect, DANTES allows students to obtain college and career training credits through 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: The 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, depending on how high you scored. The 33 CLEP tests fall into five areas: history and social sciences, composition and literature, science and math, and 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 the military to serving 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. Founded in 1972, the program works closely with multiple higher education associations, the DOD, and active and reserve components of each branch of service to develop and enhance access to higher education.

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 that 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, which is about 34% of all colleges. 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, including reserves and National Guard members. The college operates in conjunction with more than two dozen higher education institutions to provide individualized academic tracks for enlisted servicemembers and NCOs.

  • NCO Program: The NCO program is built on a base of civilian degrees that incorporate components essential to military career advancement. All credits earned in the program are completely 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 allows servicemembers to complete an associate 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

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 who are eager to refine a service-based expertise.

As an active duty or separated military servicemember, 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 that's 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. 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.

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 provide more career opportunities.

Financing Your Education

Aside from the Post-9/11 GI Bill, it's important to remember that veterans can also apply for financial aid. Reporting income can be a bit confusing at first for new civilians, but the resources that become available after successfully completing the FAFSA are worth it. Veterans may qualify for unsubsidized loans and pell grants. Veterans should also know that they are eligible to apply for many scholarships, some of which are specific to military members.

Servicemembers should look for schools that are part of the Yellow Ribbon Program. Military members who apply to schools in this program receive additional funds without having to charge their GI Bill entitlement. This allows military students to afford programs that the Post-9/11 GI Bill may not fully cover. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs reports that about 1,770 universities and colleges are part of the Yellow Ribbon Program.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill's benefits are finite. You must request your benefits within 15 years of your discharge or you will lose them forever, and the bill only pays for 36 months of your education. Consult our guide that's dedicated entirely to the financial aid opportunities that all members of the military should consider.