Should I Join the Military to Pay for College?

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College and university tuition these days is very expensive (in case you haven’t noticed). Considering the high cost, if you are thinking about earning a degree, you may be wondering: Should I join the military to pay for college?

Many people join the military to take advantage of educational benefits including tuition assistance, the GI Bill, free challenge exams, and others. In addition, many colleges and universities offer special tuition rates for military personnel that are lower than their regular rates.

The purpose of this article is not to answer the question for you. Only you can decide whether joining the military is a good option for you. It depends on many factors including your goals in life, whether you are in good physical condition, and other things.

Instead of answering the question directly, I’m going to provide an overview of the educational benefits available to military personnel and also discuss other options that are worth considering.

Yes, it’s definitely possible to earn a college degree either for free or for very little money. Joining the military is one option to consider.

It’s important to point out that things do occasionally change regarding educational benefits in the military. Always be sure to discuss educational benefits with a recruiter and other aspects of the military before you join. Make sure all of your questions get answered.

Let’s take a brief look at the educational benefits offered by the military.

Military Tuition Assistance

There are two ways you can get money to pay for college by joining the military – military tuition assistance and the GI Bill.

Military tuition assistance is free money that is offered to service members to take college courses. The amount differs based on the military branch you join.

The Air Force, for example, offers up to $4,500 a year in tuition assistance. The amount is capped at $250 per credit hour or $166 per quarter hour. In addition to using this money to pay for tuition, it can also be used to pay for some fees that schools charge like lab fees, computer fees, and others.

If you enroll in an affordable degree program, it may be possible to pay for all of an undergraduate degree program with tuition assistance if you work on your degree on a part-time basis.

The GI Bill

When most people consider joining the military to pay for college, they usually think of doing so for the GI Bill.

The GI Bill is an incredible benefit that may pay for all of a college degree if you attend an in-state school and you qualify for the maximum benefit. Rates are capped for private schools. This benefit may also cover books, supplies, and other educational expenses.

Be sure to talk to a recruiter to learn more about the GI Bill and to find out what it currently covers.

Free Challenge Exams

should i join the military to pay for college

Did you know that you can earn college credit that is accepted by many colleges and universities just by passing one or more multiple-choice exams? It’s true. These exams represent an incredible way to earn 30 or more college credits in a short period of time.

You may already be somewhat familiar with earning college credit with AP exams, but there are two other kinds of challenge exam programs that also offer college credit – CLEP and DSST.

CLEP stands for College Level Exam Program. There are currently over 30 CLEP challenge exams for different courses typically offered during the first two years of college (lower-division courses).

DSST stands for DANTES Subject Standardized Tests. There are currently over 30 DSST challenge exams for different lower and upper-division courses.

So, why should you take CLEP and DSST exams? What’s so special about them?

If you are in the military, you can take both CLEP and DSST exams for free. These exams normally cost a little under $100 each for civilians, but military personnel can take them at designated test centers without cost. It’s important to point out that the first attempt is free, but if you fail an exam and want to retake it, you have to pay the exam fee for the retake.

Second, CLEP and DSST exams represent a great way to quickly earn college credit. Study guides are available if you are rusty.

Before you take any challenge exams for college credit, be sure your school accepts them. Not all schools do. Your student advisor or an admissions representative should be able to assist you with this.

Related: Is Earning a College Degree Worth It Anymore?

Special Tuition Rates

Another great reason to consider joining the military is that many colleges and universities offer discounted tuition rates for service members.

Colleges and universities know that service members have military benefits they can use to pay for their degrees. To entice military personnel to enroll in degree programs, many schools offer them discounted tuition rates.

ROTC

Should I join the military to pay for college?

Another option if you are considering joining the military to pay for your education is ROTC, which stands for Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.

With ROTC, you attend a college or university with an ROTC program. In addition to your regular studies, you also attend training sessions to prepare you for life in the military. After you graduate, you are commissioned as a second lieutenant in the military branch of the ROTC program you went through.

Some ROTC participants may qualify for the ROTC scholarship, which will pay for either part or all of your degree program. It’s important to point out that participation in ROTC does not automatically qualify you for the ROTC scholarship. You must apply and be accepted to the scholarship program.

In addition to paying for tuition, ROTC scholarships may also pay for books and fees. It may also provide you with a modest monthly stipend to pay for living expenses.

If you are interested in learning more about ROTC and the ROTC scholarship, contact a recruiter. Additional information can also be found on the ROTC websites for the branch of service you are interested in.

The Reserves and National Guard

If you are interested in serving your country to help pay for college but you don’t want to do it on a full-time basis, the reserves and National Guard are options to consider.

The interesting thing about being a weekend warrior is that you may qualify for many of the same educational benefits that the full-timers receive. For example, you may qualify for military tuition assistance and the GI Bill.

If this sounds like an option you might be interested in, definitely take the time to talk to a recruiter to find out what the current military educational benefits are for those in the reserves and National Guard.

Alternatives to the Military to Consider

If you are wondering, should I join the military to pay for college, you may be surprised to learn that there are some alternatives that are worth considering. The military isn’t the only organization that offers tuition benefits.

Not everyone is cut out for the military. While it may be a great option for some, others may not be able to join due to health issues or other reasons. There are also some who prefer the civilian life – and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Community Colleges

Attending an affordable community college is an option that should be at the top of your list if you aren’t sure if joining the military is a good option for you.

Community colleges are usually just a fraction of what four-year colleges cost. Depending on your major, you may be able to complete your first two years of school at an affordable community college and then transfer to a four-year school to complete your degree. If you qualify for the PELL grant, you may obtain enough grant money to cover all of your tuition, books, and other expenses – making this a free way to earn either college credit or a degree.

There’s also been a movement in recent years where some states offer free community college educations to their residents. Some stipulations may apply, so be sure to check and see if you qualify if you live in one of these states.

Another thing to consider with community colleges is many of them offer either certificates or associate’s degrees in careers that pay very well. There are many high-paying careers in the medical field, for example, that only require an associate’s degree.

Related: Forgiveness Programs for Student Loan Debt

Competency Degrees

Another option for those who are wondering should I join the military to pay for college is to consider a competency degree instead of a traditional degree program.

What’s the difference?

For decades, colleges and universities have been using time spent studying a subject as a measure of learning. You’ll notice that both the “semester hour” and “quarter hour” both use the term “hour.” They both measure time spent learning.

With this method of learning, it really doesn’t matter how much knowledge you already have or how quickly you learn a subject. What matters is how much time you spend studying the subject before you are awarded college credit.

Competency-based degrees are different. In these degree programs, what you know is more important than how long you spend studying subjects. If you are a math whiz, for example, you may be able to earn college credit in algebra in a couple of weeks. The idea is to prove you are “competent” in a subject and then move on to another subject.

Competency-based degree programs are usually much more affordable than traditional programs. In traditional degree programs, you are usually charged per course. In comparison, with competency degree programs, you are charged a flat fee for a certain period of time. You are allowed to complete as many courses as you can during an enrollment period. It’s kind of like a “buffet” where you can eat as much as possible for a set fee.

How fast you complete a competency-based degree program depends on many different factors like how hard you work on your degree, how much knowledge you already have on certain subjects, how quickly you learn new subjects, and other factors.

A few schools that offer online competency-based degree programs include:

  • Northern Arizona University
  • University of Wisconsin
  • University of Maine at Presque Isle
  • Western Governors University
  • Texas A&M University – Commerce

Work Colleges

Another alternative to consider if you are wondering should I join the military to pay for college is to apply to one of the work colleges.

What’s a work college?

Schools that are designated “work colleges” are those where all students who are admitted are assigned jobs on campus. Working isn’t optional. Some of these schools also have arrangements where students can work in the community.

The work that students do helps to either keep the tuition low or to completely eliminate tuition, room, and board. Some of the work colleges are completely free while others offer affordable tuition.

There are many different jobs on campus that students can do at work colleges. Jobs are usually assigned to students. Freshman and sophomores usually have the least-desirable jobs while those at the junior and senior levels have the best jobs.

A few examples of jobs students may do at a work college include:

  • Food service
  • Janitorial
  • Grounds maintenance
  • Administrative assistant
  • Tutoring

If you would like to learn more about the work colleges, the Work Colleges Consortium website has more information on the colleges and how they operate.

Tuition Money from Your Employer

One of my favorite alternatives to the military to pay for college is to work a job with a company that offers free tuition as a benefit.

Did you realize that some companies do this?

Company sponsored tuition is considered an employee benefit, the same as health and dental insurance, vacation time, and other benefits. It’s not something that has to be repaid, either. If you aren’t sure if a company offers free tuition as a benefit, just check on the benefits section of their website or ask someone in human resources.

Let’s take a quick look at several companies that offer free tuition as an employee benefit. Who knows – maybe you could land a job at one of these companies.

McDonald’s

McDonald’s offers up to $2,500 a year in tuition assistance at an “approved school.” To qualify, you must work at a restaurant owned by a participating franchise owner/operator for at least 90 cumulative days, work an average of 15 hours per week, and be in good standing as determined by the franchise owner/operator.

Chipotle Mexican Grill

Chipotle Mexican Grill’s educational benefits are excellent. The company will pay for 100% of select online degree programs and college preparation courses. Chipotle also offers $5,250 a year towards other degree programs.

Taco Bell

Taco Bell is another company with excellent educational benefits. The company offers up to $5,250 a year towards select online degree programs. It’s also possible to earn additional college credit for on-the-job experience. Check out this short video to learn more about how working at Taco Bell can help you pay for your college degree:

How Taco Bell's Education Benefits Work

Walmart

Walmart is another company that offers excellent educational benefits to its employees. Through the company’s education benefit program, you can earn a college degree through select online degree programs for only $1 a day. Walmart also offers training programs in the trades that are also only $1 a day. Training is available in the following trades:

  • Industrial and facilities maintenance
  • Electrical
  • Plumbing
  • Construction
  • HVAC/R

Starbucks

I’ve saved what I consider to be the best educational benefits program for last. This one is my personal favorite. It’s an amazing education benefit program offered by Starbucks.

The reason why I love this program so much is because Starbucks will pay for 100% of an undergraduate degree program for all part and full-time employees studying online through Arizona State University. Even better, you can study whatever you want. ASU online offers over 100 degree programs that you can choose from.

Should I Join the Military to Pay for College? – Final Thoughts

If you want to earn a college degree but you don’t want to go deep in debt with a student loan to pay for it, joining the military is an option to consider. Many people do it. Whether this is a good option for you is something that only you can answer.

If you are unsure of whether the military makes sense for you, talk to a recruiter. Make sure you ask about the educational benefits. Military benefits do change periodically, and you want to make sure you understand everything that’s available before making a decision. Once you sign on the dotted line, there’s no backing out.

It’s also a good idea to talk to a few people who are either currently in the military or have been discharged. They will be able to give you insights on military life that you probably won’t hear from a recruiter.

Also consider some of the alternatives to going deep in debt with a student loan. Community colleges, competency-based degrees, work colleges, and employer tuition assistance are all great ways to dramatically lower the cost of earning a degree.

Should I join the military to pay for college?

Only you can answer that question. Before you make a decision, take the time to talk to a recruiter and to some people who went the military route. Also consider some of the alternatives for funding your degree mentioned in this article.

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Cyrus Vanover

Cyrus Vanover, MBA, is a financial copywriter who has written for companies of all sizes. He is also the author of the personal finance book, "Earn A Debt-Free College Degree." His goal is to help families save money, make more money, and achieve financial independence. Based in the mountains of Virginia, he enjoys hiking the local trails, listening to 80s music, and reading books on military history in his spare time. Read more.

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