One of the primary benefits of being an active military service member while pursuing an online education is the military tuition assistance offered as part of your service.
Tuition assistance pays up to $250 per credit hour ($4,500 total) until the fiscal year cap is reached. (Note: This is the case for all branches except the Navy, which pays $4,000 total for the fiscal year). It's a perfect opportunity for military members in online degree programs pursuing a degree.
One issue, though: Often times, military members' tuition assistance runs out for the year right about now, in May. The fiscal year does not reset for TA to kick back in again until October.
For many military members, this poses a dilemma.
If you find yourself in this position, what are your options? It's important to take the time to consider these six options, and make an informed decision based on your situation.
Option 1: Wait
Pros: Of course, waiting until TA kicks in again in October is an option. There are no out-of-pocket expenses with your courses because TA will cover them, up to $4,500 in a fiscal year ...
Cons: ... But you'll be out of school until October. How long are you willing to wait to obtain your degree? You may desire to earn your degree at a faster pace to start a job search sooner.
It would take six years and five months for a military student to complete his/her bachelor of science degree in Business Administration at UA Grantham, for example, if the student waited until the fiscal year restarted for TA to kick in every year. Not all students can wait that long.
Option 2: Pay Out-of-Pocket
Pros: Timeliness. If you desire your degree in a timely fashion - perhaps for a new job that requires a certain amount of education - the option to pay your tuition out-of-pocket, if you can afford it, is available. You could also save your GI Bill® benefits for after you hit veteran status (more on that in the next two options).
Cons: Immediate payment is required. This option will obviously require the most amount of money up front.
Option 3: Top-Up Program
Pros: Timeliness. The Top-Up program allows military students to use their GI Bill benefits to supplement the tuition and fees not covered by TA. Don't confuse this option with strictly using your GI Bill to cover the rest of your courses; it's different.
The Top-Up program is becoming a more popular option because military members will have more long-term GI Bill benefits than if they were to strictly use their GI Bill without Top-Up. In other words, Top-Up subtracts less from your GI Bill benefits in the long term. That's a good thing.
Cons: Military members who participate in the Top-Up program will have their GI Bill benefits reduced.
Option 4: GI Bill
Pros: Timeliness. Military service members who run out of TA and want to take more classes in the same fiscal year can always tap into their Post 9/11 GI Bill or Montgomery GI Bill benefits, depending on which one you're eligible for. You won't have to pay anything out-of-pocket, and you'll earn your degree in a timely fashion.
Note: You can use TA and GI Bill benefits in the same fiscal year, as long as you're not using both for the same course.
Cons: Just like Top-Up, military members will have their GI Bill benefits reduced, but at an even greater rate with this option. Many military service members choose to save most of their GI Bill benefits for after they leave the service. While on active duty, the GI Bill will pay for the actual cost of your courses, which may only be a portion of the benefits you'd receive from the GI Bill after leaving the military.
Option 5: Financial Aid
Pros: Federal Student Aid (FSA) is designed to assist all students, including those serving in the military, with tuition, textbooks and lodging costs.
The federal government requires all students who wish to receive FSA to complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
Of course, you're going to build up loans with FSA, but you may also be eligible for military grants along the way. You don't have to pay anything back from receiving grants.
One of the most popular grants from FSA is the Pell Grant. You must be an undergraduate to qualify for this grant, which awards the student up to $5,550 each school year. Qualification depends on your financial needs and tuition costs.
Many times, FSA is well worth the investment, particularly if it places the student in a better position in their degree program to land a new job. Over time, the money you make at your job could offset the loans accumulated by FSA.
Cons: Depending on your financial situation and how quickly you can repay the loan, you could wind up making payments for an extended period of time.
Option 6: Scholarships
Pros: Service members may be eligible for military scholarships at various colleges, depending on where they attend school. Many military scholarships cover the cost of tuition remaining after TA has been applied, in addition to covering textbooks and software. For more on military scholarship eligibility, please visit here.
Cons: None. The worst outcome: You're not eligible. It doesn't hurt to look into the possibility.
There is no best or worst option from the list above. It all depends on your situation. Make sure you carefully consider these options in order to make the most informed and appropriate decision.
GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government Web site at https://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill/.