Female soldier smiling because the Army paid for her college
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Does the Military Pay for College?

08.05.2023 • 9 min read

Lizann Lightfoot

Editor and Military Spouse

College tuition rates are increasing, but military college tuition programs provide free military college. Learn the options and how to qualify for them.

In This Article:

  1. College Cost on the Rise

  2. Military Member's Benefits

  3. How Does the Military Pay for College?

  4. College Tuition Alternatives

Every year thousands of students graduate from college and look for their first full-time job. They’re eager to use the skills they developed during their years in college classes.

And… most college graduates start their new lives with student loan debt. The average monthly student loan payment is around $500, and most borrowers take 20 years to repay their total student loan debt!

If the price tag of a college education is holding you back from starting a degree program, you’ll be happy to learn it’s possible to go to college for free!

People don’t always consider joining the military to cover the cost of their college education.

Whether you join an ROTC program to become a military officer after graduation, or enlist and use military education benefits during your active duty time, there are several ways to earn a free college education with help from the military.

This article will explore those options and show you how much the military will pay for college degrees.

College Cost on the Rise

While college degrees have always been an investment, the cost of college has increased dramatically for the current generation of students. When accounting for inflation, college costs have almost tripled since the 1960s.

  • Tuition has increased 143% since 1963

  • A degree from a 4-year public college is now 64% more than it was 20 years ago

  • The cost of room and board has increased 50% in the past 20 years

Because of these high prices, Forbes estimates more than half of students who earn a Bachelor’s degree graduate with debt. The average debt load is $28,400.

Rising inflation is not the only cause of rising college costs. Institutions are adding more student services like mental health, transportation, and child care. But these benefits require hiring more personnel and passing those costs on to students.

State funding to public colleges decreased during the Great Recession in 2008, and rates have only returned to pre-2008 levels in 18 states. One study found a 25% decrease in public funding per student from 1988 to 2018. Less public funding means more money out of students’ pockets.

With the current cost of college, students are finding college less affordable than it was for their parents or grandparents.

Thankfully, you can find alternatives to fund college tuition prices. Numerous scholarships and grants help students offset the cost of college.

The military also offers benefits to pay for college, whether you need to earn a bachelor’s degree to start your career, or you want to fund an advanced degree.

Let’s explore the military college tuition benefits available to service members.

Military Members’ Benefits

All military members and veterans are eligible for certain benefits. This is true for active duty of all branches, as well as National Guard, Reserve members, and sometimes even military spouses.

Benefits for service members include:

  • Healthcare coverage for themselves, their spouse, and their children

  • Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) designed to cover the monthly cost to rent in the zip code closest to their military assignment

  • Life insurance

  • Moving allowance when they relocate

  • Retirement fund options

Another popular benefit for service members is military college tuition coverage through education benefits.

Service members qualify for education benefits once they join the military, either through basic training, an ROTC program, or a military service academy. Education benefits like the G.I. Bill and Tuition Assistance are available for everyone who serves in the military.

More details about these military education benefits are explored below.

How Does the Military Pay for College?

So how much will the military pay for college? That depends on the program or benefit you choose.

Service Academies

Students who attend 1 of the 5 military service academies receive a free college education. How? They can in exchange for several years of military service—usually a minimum of 6 years, depending on their area of training. Upon graduating, students are commissioned as military officers.

Each military branch in the Department of Defense and Armed Forces has its own academy:

  • Those wishing to become officers in the Army attend West Point in New York.

  • Navy and Marine Corps candidates go to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

  • The Air Force Academy is in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

  • The Coast Guard Academy is in New London, Connecticut.

  • The Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York allows graduates to join any of the armed services or become a merchant marine officer.

Attending a service academy is not like a traditional college because students learn military skills alongside typical coursework. The application process is competitive and requires endorsement from a member of Congress.

Service academy applicants ‌‌selected and pass all their courses graduate with a free college degree and a clear career path.

ROTC Programs

The Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, commonly called ROTC, is a military education program held at colleges and universities across the country. If accepted into a ROTC program, students receive a scholarship to cover all tuition and fees, plus a monthly stipend for living expenses. After graduation, students are commissioned as military officers.

Eligibility is limited to students who meet physical and academic standards and commit to military training sessions during their years in college.

Students who apply in high school will get a 4-year ROTC scholarship, but students can also apply for 2- or 3-year scholarships if they have already completed some college classes. In exchange for the free military college scholarship, ROTC candidates must serve at least 4 years in the military.

Military Tuition Assistance

Active duty service members and activated Reserve or National Guardsmen can take advantage of free college classes during their military service through the Tuition Assistance (TA) program.

Service members can use TA to take college classes on their own time. The military will pay the full tuition cost of each class, up to $250 per credit and $4,500 per fiscal year per student. If used strategically, TA can cover an entire undergraduate and/or master’s degree during a career of enlistment.

All service members qualify for TA scholarships if they have at least a year remaining on their military contract, but tuition fees will only be covered if they receive a grade of C or higher in the class. The classes must be taken through an accredited institution. Some TA programs, like the Coast Guard’s, require applicants to attend a school from a designated list.

Post-9/11 GI Bill

This military education benefit is for all veterans, Reserve, and Guard members who have served at least 90 days in the military since September 10, 2001. (Note it has replaced the older Montgomery GI Bill.) To receive full benefits, the service member must have served at least 36 months.

How much will the military pay for college when using the GI Bill?

It covers:

  • All student tuition and fees for 36 months

  • A housing stipend

  • A book allowance up to $1,000 per year

This is enough to complete a 4-year college degree as a full-time student.

Many veterans use the GI Bill benefits as a free military college tuition program after they separate from the military. However, if the service member does not plan to pursue a degree (or has already used the Tuition Assistance program to complete their degree), they can transfer the GI Bill benefits to their spouse or dependent.

Note: A service member must have several years of service left on their military contract to transfer the GI Bill to their dependent. When transferred to a family member, the GI Bill does not include the housing allowance.

College Tuition Alternatives

Joining the military is one way to cover the cost of a college degree. Alternative ways to fund a college degree can be used with or without military service.

Student Financial Aid

Most colleges and universities offer need-based financial aid programs. To qualify, you will need to complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to demonstrate your household income. Check with your desired school to learn all the options.


A grant is money gifted to a student to be used toward the cost of tuition. Funding for grants comes from public organizations, so they are given to anyone who meets the qualifications. Usually, a grant is not enough to cover the full cost of tuition. The main difference between a grant and a loan is that a grant doesn’t need to be repaid.


Similar to grants, scholarships are a type of “free money” applied to tuition, which does not need to be repaid. However, unlike grants, scholarships are competitive and usually based on merit. Each scholarship has its own application process, and funders will choose a defined number of winners from the applicant pool.

Most scholarships require an application essay and sometimes letters of recommendation. To qualify, candidates must complete the entire process and meet other criteria related to grades, race, ethnicity, geographic location, or field of study. There are even scholarships for online students and scholarships for single moms.

Online Degrees+

If you want to complete an accredited online degree from a reputable university—without overspending on tuition—then check out the Degrees+ program. Through Outlier.org, you can earn an associate degree from Golden Gate University, plus a career certificate from a top company, all for 66% less than the average US college tuition.

The courses are completely online and flexible to fit your schedule. At $149 per college credit, it can be fully funded with a Pell Grant or—for military veterans—the GI Bill.

Explore these Degrees+ programs to get started on your degree:

While the cost of college tuition has increased dramatically in recent years, don’t let the high price tag deter you from pursuing your goals and earning a college degree. Many alternatives are available to fund your college education.

Some students join the military for military college tuition assistance or free military college through the service academies. Other students use a combination of financial aid, grants, and scholarships to fund their degree. And many students are discovering affordable degree programs powered by Outlier.

When you’re ready to pursue your college degree, do your research and choose the option that works best for you!

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