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Military benefits, such as tuition assistance, are a major motivating factor for many who enlist in the U.S. Armed Forces. Since 1944, the GI Bill has helped qualifying veterans and their families receive funds to cover all or some of their education costs.

Even those not eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill may still be able to access other VA education benefits through a number of programs, including Veterans’ Educational Assistance Program (VEAP), with the help of an accredited representative such as a Veterans Service Officer (VSO).

We spoke with Stephen Venneman, an Editor at Peterson’s, and Rob Maddestra, Business Development Director at Peterson’s, to learn from their experiences using military tuition assistance and provide advice to veterans and current military members looking to further their education.

Venneman served in the U.S. Army on active duty for four years and in the reserves for two years. He joined his high school’s Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) program and always felt a responsibility to serve in the military.

“Many others had gone before me in service to their nation, and since I was able to do so, I did so,” said Venneman.

Maddestra, who served six years in the U.S. Navy, joined the military for a variety of reasons — to travel (his childhood dream was to live in Japan), adventure, his love of the ocean and desire to be a deep sea scuba diver, and to improve himself and learn new skills. Family tradition played another role in his decision, as many of his relatives served in either the Army or Navy. 

Knowing your educational benefits

Venneman said he knew about the GI Bill prior to enlisting, but didn’t actually know how to use it until he started attending college. He suggests that students who have questions about military benefits available to them speak to university financial aid representatives who know the process as well as those at the Veterans Affairs office.

Venneman was eligible for the Montgomery GI Bill benefit which made it possible for him to receive a Bachelor of Science degree in Journalism-Electronic Media from the University of Oregon.

“With the Post-9/11 GI Bill, veterans have a tremendous educational benefit,” said Venneman. “Use the benefit to its fullest, and always look out for more support in the form of grants and scholarships. Don’t balk at those $100 or less scholarships; those little ones can add up quickly.”

While the GI Bill often comes to mind first when thinking about military education benefits, many other programs also exist. 

Maddestra benefited from VEAP,  a government-match program for educational assistance, and other opportunities for professional development that were available to him, including the Air Force Leadership Academy, and U.S. Navy specialty and soft skills training.

Advice to those seeking a degree with military experience

With numerous military benefits available, it’s important to know which programs you’re eligible for, the limitations of each, and the steps needed to take advantage of them.

“Understand your benefits and the resources available to you,” said Maddestra. “Know that your military experience and training has real value in your education endeavors. Make sure to credential that experience and training.”

Coming out of the military, you will have something called a Joint Service Transcript (JST) which details your service history, military occupations, military course completions, among others. An academic advisor at your college or university will be able to tell you if you are eligible for prior learning credits based on your service.  

Obtaining college credits by taking and passing CLEP or DSST exams is another valuable and affordable way to supplement your college education.

“Look into DSST options as a way to earn college credit for your experiences and education,” Venneman said. “The time saved by testing out of a class will help you as you start your career.”

If you are still in the military, he also suggests checking with your base/installation education office to see if there are any college classes you can take while still enlisted.

Looking back

Venneman said if given a chance again, he could’ve been more strategic in how he used his benefits, as he had already earned a lot of college credit. “I would’ve sought out scholarships and grants to help cover my living expenses. I probably would’ve joined up with organizations like the VFW [Veterans of Foreign Wars] and American Legion, as they often offer scholarships to their members. Lastly, I would’ve taken more than just one college course while I was in the military. Couldn’t beat the price for the class!”

After his service, Maddestra completed a two-year degree program in Marketing from Newbury College, followed by an undergraduate degree in Business Administration from Lesley University. Years later, he completed a graduate degree program in Education/Adult Learning & Development and some post graduate work. 

Maddestra said if he could do it all again, he would have completed his college education first and then applied for the U.S. Air Force Officer Candidate program

Discussing your options and benefits coverage with a VSO and/or a college financial aid representative can give you the guidance you need to create a plan to successfully complete your educational and career goals. You’ll be pleased with all the options and benefits open to you as a veteran. 

Related: How to Become an Officer in the Military

For more information about finding military benefits, colleges, scholarships, and other resources, check out Peterson’s Online Military Resource Community