Many active duty military know that the GI Bill is a way to earn more money later and to build their military retirement. The average Bachelor's degree is potentially worth about $300,000 more in "lifetime income." When you add that to your military retirement pay, that's what most in the military would call a future to look forward to. Using your GI Bill benefits after getting out of the military can give you an obvious financial advantage.
But by focusing on the long term payoff, you may be missing the more immediate benefits of getting your college or graduate school degree while still on active duty. By waiting till you get out of the service, you could be cheating yourself out of higher military pay and better perks right now.
WHY EARN YOUR COLLEGE DEGREE WHILE YOU'RE STILL ON ACTIVE DUTY?
When you are a new soldier, sailor, airman or marine, it's easy to put off going to for that college or graduate school degree. Your early days at your first assignment are full of training, adjusting to a new environment and military life in general. But eventually you're going to find the time to explore your military education benefits including the GI Bill and beyond. And should you start taking your college classes right away? Examine your goals and you'll see that your career in uniform might depend on it.
The military places a lot of emphasis on higher education. In the short term, your quarterly and annual evaluations can be positively affected by your taking college classes. Over the long haul, those who hold degrees can become eligible for Officer programs, and it's well-established that senior Non-Commissioned Officer (SNCO) positions are given to those who have degrees.
The "whole person concept" used during evaluations for senior NCO boards definitely includes higher education. You may make it to Master Sergeant over a 20-year career, but promotions to higher ranks often depends on your passing a military board review. If you have no higher education in your promotion package, your chances of making those SNCO grades aren't good. What do senior NCOs get that Staff Sergeants and Technical Sergeants don't? One important benefit is the option to continue a career well past the 20-year mark. That alone can be a powerful motivating factor to get promoted to E7, E8 and E9.
After reading all this, many first-term military members are now wondering how to sign up for college classes and get their GI Bill benefits started. But your GI Bill education benefits could go untouched for the entire time you serve in the military thanks to service-specific tuition assistance programs. These programs usually cover most—if not all—tuition expenses for those on active duty who fit the requirements of the program. The Air Force Tuition Assistance Program, GoArmyEd, Marine and Navy Tuition Assistance are all potential options to support your college education.
So, you can improve your military career, give yourself a post-military career advantage... AND still save your GI Bill for later. The new GI Bill, also known as the Post 9/11 GI Bill, offers more opportunities than ever before. If you are eligible for the Post 9/11 GI Bill program, your educational future is virtually wide open.
And yes, you do have the option to use the GI Bill while on active duty. Maybe you need to pursue classes that aren't eligible under a service-specific tuition assistance program, or perhaps you want to transfer your GI Bill education benefits to a dependent. Perhaps you want to use another specific military tuition assistance program while a spouse uses the GI Bill. There are so many new options under the 2008 GI Bill program. But regardless of what you choose, college or graduate school education should be part of your success - in your short term military career AND your post-military life goals.
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