The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) serves as the nation's largest employer, totalling 1.3 million service members. Six branches comprise the DoD: Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, National Guard, and Coast Guard. From these ranks, the DoD estimates that more than 2 million military retirees receive benefits. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) says that 20.4 million veterans lived in the U.S. as of 2016, with veterans of the Gulf War constituting the largest group. Given the current trend, the VA projects that by 2037, the number of U.S. veterans will decline to 13.6 million.

20.4 million veterans lived in the U.S. as of 2016, with veterans of the Gulf War constituting the largest group. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

The GI Bill serves as the centerpiece of the U.S. military's education program. Created in 1944, the bill originally aided veterans. The Post-9/11 GI Bill focuses heavily on military personnel who served after 9/11. In addition to this program, the Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges (SOC), which is a consortium of 1,900 military-friendly colleges and universities, offers tuition assistance to military personnel and their families. These member schools ease the enrollment process for military students through simplified credit transfer and acceptance of prior credit learning (CPL). Many SOC schools also offer distance learning that works well for non-stationary military students.

The Importance of Military Status

Programs like the Montgomery GI Bill base eligibility on a student's military status, length of service, and time of enlistment. Interested students, such as those pursuing an online public health degree, should seek advice from the Veterans Benefits Administration directly. Active-duty military, veterans, and those in the reserves qualify for military benefits.

Government Benefits for Military Students

The Post-9/11 GI Bill

The Post-9/11 GI Bill emerged in 2008. Administered by the VA, the education benefit program caters to individuals who served on active duty after September 10, 2001. Two programs distinguish this bill from former versions: the Yellow Ribbon (YR) Program and the Transfer of Entitlement option. The YR Program allows colleges and universities to offer additional funds beyond what the GI Bill covers. For example, while the Post-9/11 GI Bill covers all in-state tuition and fees at public institutions, some schools exceed the national cap allotted for private institutions and out-of-state programs. The YR Program helps bridge this gap. In addition to tuition, YR funds may apply to books, supplies, housing, and a one-time rural benefit. The Transfer of Entitlement option, meanwhile, caters to the family of a service member. Through this option, a service member can transfer unused benefits to either their spouse or their dependents. They must make the request while the individual serves as an active member of the U.S. military.

To qualify for the Post-9/11 GI Bill, service members need at least 90 days of active-duty service after September 10, 2001.

To qualify for the Post-9/11 GI Bill, service members need at least 90 days of active-duty service after September 10, 2001. The amount of the benefit corresponds to the overall length of service. At 90 days, individuals qualify for 40% of the maximum benefit. This increases by 10% with every additional six months of service. At 36 months or more, military personnel may receive 100% of the benefit. All 50 states and the District of Columbia boast compliance with the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act. This measure stipulates that all public colleges and universities must charge veterans and their eligible dependents in-state tuition, regardless of their residency.

The Montgomery GI Bill

In 1984, the original GI Bill became the Montgomery GI Bill. The bill assured benefits for the veterans of the post-Vietnam era. The bill splits into two main programs: the Montgomery GI Bill Active Duty (MGIB-AD) and the Montgomery GI Bill Selected Reserve (MGIB-SR). The MGIB-AD serves active-duty members who contribute $100 in their first 12 months of service and who fulfill their service obligation (two continuous years on active duty). The MGIB-SR serves reservists (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Army National Guard, or the Air National Guard) who actively drill and who sign up for a six-year obligation in the Selected Reserve. MGIB recipients can use benefits for education or training, including enrolling at one of the nation's military-friendly colleges. Eligible MGIB recipients may receive education benefits for up to eight semesters or four years of college. MGIB-AD benefits last for 10 years after an individual's final day of service, and MGIB-SR benefits expire the day a reservist leaves the Selected Reserve.

Servicemember Opportunity Colleges

The consortium SOC, or the Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges, launched in 1972 to help the nation's veteran population and active-duty personnel pursue their higher education goals. Comprised of more than 1,900 military-friendly colleges and universities, the SOC simplifies the application process for military students who possess prior credit from courses, exams, training, or work experience. By doing so, SOC reduces the number of credits a military student needs for graduation while also lowering tuition costs. What's more, many SOC schools offer online programs at the degree or certificate level. From an online public health degree to a certificate in business communications, military students today enjoy an assorted catalog of programs. Funded by the Department of Defense (DoD) and coordinated through DANTES, each branch of the armed forces (with the exception of the Air Force) boasts their own SOC program: SOCAD (Army), SOCMAR (Marine), SOCNAV (Navy), SOCCOAST (Coast Guard), and SOCGuard (Army National Guard).

What Does It Mean for a School to be Military-Friendly?

Current and former military members weigh various factors when choosing a college, including budget, timing, family and work, and program offerings. For students pursuing a public health degree, for example, the possible choices immediately pare down to those military-friendly colleges that offer academic programs in public health and health services. Prospective college students who bring military experience should explore available transfer-credit opportunities and degree-completion options. While home to many military-friendly online colleges, the nation’s military students -- especially veterans no longer traveling the world -- should also consider the benefits of a hybrid or on-campus program.

  • Tuition Discounts for Military: As authorized by Congress, all military branches can pay up to 100% of tuition for service members. All branches and duty stations enjoy access to tuition assistance (or TA). Each branch sets their own parameters for TA, with the Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marine Corps capping funds at $4,500 per fiscal year and the Coast Guard at $2,250.
  • Credit Opportunities: An SOC military-friendly college or university simplifies credit transfer, including credit for prior learning. Many military-friendly college programs award credit not only for courses, but also for military training, work experience, and exams. As a result, military students can earn their college degrees quicker and at a lower cost.
  • Financial Aid: Military students enjoy financial aid in the form of scholarships, grants, loans, and work-study programs. To establish eligibility, one needs to submit a FAFSA application. This applies to military members and their family members. For TA and MGIB benefits, students must go through the VA. Make sure to first find a VA-approved training or education program at a military-friendly college.
  • On-Campus Benefits: Some of the benefits available to current and former military members living on campus include housing, job and career support, and counseling services. A veteran student pursuing an online public health degree, for example, can still access on-campus services like VetSuccess -- which help former military service members make the transition from the military to civilian life. Launched in 2009, VSOC helps military members on 94 military-friendly college campuses across the nation.
  • Academic Programs: Military-friendly online colleges offer academic programs across every discipline, from military studies to business administration. Keep in mind that many military benefits require that the recipient attend a VA-approved school. With this requirement and a student's career in mind, the choices will narrow.
  • Flexibility: Both traditional and military-friendly colleges online work with the unique schedules of military students. Distance learning options open up possibilities for working professionals and part-time students, including those working toward an online public health degree.