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Updated on Thursday, April 28, 2016
Lacey Langford was taking classes at a local community college when she realized she’d rather work full-time to save money for school. “My father was an Army officer, and I decided I wanted to join like him,” says Langford, now 38, who lives in Summerfield, NC. “He convinced me to at least talk to the Air Force recruiter. That was it. I realized it would be better for me and I committed to the Air Force.”
Three years into her active duty, Langford started taking classes at night, using the Air Force’s Tuition Assistance program and the GI Bill. She later separated from the Air Force and completed her degree at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. She estimates that the GI Bill paid for 100 percent of her tuition, 85 percent of her books, and about 40 percent of her room and board expenses. “I am happy with the way it worked out, walking out of school with zero student loan debt,” says Langford, who today is a financial planner. “I also gained valuable work experience and discipline. The discipline alone has reaped major rewards.”
With the average 2015 graduate coming out of school with more than $35,000 in student loans, being able to get a degree without all the debt is appealing, to say the least. Langford’s path to tuition coverage is one way to do it, but the military offers a variety of ways to pay for schooling or even to pay back student loans. Here are a few options:
1. ROTC Scholarships
Some schools offer the opportunity to apply for a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program that could pay for nearly all of your tuition, fees and books charges for four years of school, in exchange for a commitment to enter the service as a commissioned officer when you graduate. You generally promise to serve for at least four years post-graduation. There are also two- and three-year scholarships available, depending on how many years you have left in school. Each branch of the military has their own information and program.
2. Montgomery GI Bill
During basic training, recruits get the chance to sign up for this GI Bill plan, paying for it with $100 a month during their first year in the service. Once enrolled, however, eligible members can receive a monthly stipend while attending classes, based on their active duty status and how long they’ve served. For instance, effective October 1, 2015 through September 30, 2016, those who have completed an enlistment of three years or more and enrolled in full-time school qualify for a monthly stipend of $1,789. Rates generally go up every year.
3. 9/11 GI Bill
Any veteran with at least 90 days of active duty after September 11, 2001, with an honorable discharge, is eligible to take advantage of this benefit. The biggest benefit goes to those with at least three years of active duty service. For those with three years of active duty service and attending a public school, the 9/11 GI Bill will pay up to 100% of tuition and fee payments for an in-state student. For private or foreign school attendees, payment is up to $21,970.46 per academic year.
4. Tuition Assistance
Each branch of the military also offers its own tuition assistance program, in which active duty members can get money toward tuition and fees for qualified programs. The Air Force, Army and Marines offer up to $4,500 per fiscal year with caps on credit hour costs, and the Navy offers up to $250 per semester credit hour or $166 per quarter credit hour. The Coast Guard offers up to $3,375 per fiscal year. This may also be an option for you if you belong to one of the service’s Reserve units.
5. Student Loan Repayment
If you’ve already incurred student loans, you may be able to enlist in the military and have them paid off over time. Each branch offers its own program for this. The Army and Navy, for example, will repay up to $65,000 of a soldier’s qualifying student loans, and the Air Force will repay up to $10,000. Generally, after each year of completed active duty, your service will pay 33-1/3 percent or $1,500, whichever is greater, of your total unpaid balance.
There are other programs that may assist with school costs or loan repayment, depending on your position, active duty status and career field. You can get more information on all programs at military.com/education, or find specific information from the military branch you’re interested in.
A word of caution
Although these are all valid pathways to an education without massive student loan debt—or any debt at all in some cases—experts advise that students shouldn’t join the military for the tuition assistance alone. “There are people for whom the military is great, but for some people, the military is just not for them,” says Ryan Guina, founder of TheMilitaryWallet.com, who used the military’s Tuition Assistance program to get his degree while on active duty with the Air Force. “If you’re going to join for a specific benefit, make sure all the other aspects are in line with your values and what you’re looking for out of life. I encourage people to look at the military as a whole and not just a means to an end.”