The Ultimate College Guide for Veterans & Active Service Members

Veterans and active service members applying for college qualify for resources that help ease the transition to campus life. Read on for a guide to picking a VA-approved school, scholarships, credit for service experience, and community support.

Veterans with a bachelor's degree or graduate degree have a higher rate of employment than veterans who have less education. With this in mind, it isn't surprising that the number of veterans who return to school and pursue higher education is continuing to increase. In 2007, just over 15% of all veterans had completed a bachelor's degree and 10% had earned an advanced degree. Fast forward to 2016 and almost 19% of veteran's have a bachelor's degree and nearly 12% have an advanced degree (master's or doctoral degree).

As more veterans are choosing to pursue higher education after leaving the military, it's helpful to discuss the unique learning and adjusting experiences that affect this population. Many veterans are between 24 and 40 years old, which is outside of the traditional age range of college students. Around 47% of students who are veterans have children and nearly half of all student veterans are married.

It can be difficult to balance financial and family obligations with a college program. This guide has been built with these concerns in mind and provides an overview of the tools available to student veterans to assist them with success in their studies.

Preparing for College After Military Service

There are several resources available to veterans who are looking to attend college. Many resources will help prepare veterans for their college transition through helping to create academic goals, navigate financial benefits, discover the best school for each student, find remedial academic programs and more.


The Veterans Affairs' Transition Assistance Program begins 1 to 2 years before military separation and provides information on what resources are available to veterans as well as how to navigate the transition. Topics covered through TAP include assessing personal goals, career readiness, educational assistance, and community and home buying resources.

Through the TAP program, military members have an opportunity to discover and decide on what their goals are after separation, and how they can obtain those goals. TAP provides a comprehensive list of assistance programs, such as disability benefits, healthcare benefits, state benefits, GI Bill information, and resources for finding military and veteran groups and organizations.

Remedial Education Programs

The GI Bill and Paying for College as a Veteran

College is expensive. The good news is that there are several financial assistance programs available to active duty military and veterans to alleviate a ton of the cost. In many cases, these college financial programs can also benefit spouses or children of veterans or active duty military members. Be sure to check out the options below when looking to bring down the cost of you and your families education.

GI Bill

The GI Bill has been helping veterans pay for college since 1944, including graduate and undergraduate programs. Veterans who have served a qualifying amount of time (such as 90 days or 2 years) and have either an honorable or general discharge may qualify. Veterans with other types of discharge (such as dishonorable or other than honorable) may still qualify if they upgrade their discharge through the VA.

Veterans can receive assistance for up to 36 months, including funds for tuition, fees, course materials and housing. The amount of assistance varies based on how long veterans served; as of the 2018 to 2019 school year the maximum amount awarded for the Post-9/11 GI Bill is full assistance (everything paid) for in-state students at private colleges and $23,612 per year for students at private or out-of-state colleges. These benefits apply to students of on-campus and online college programs, and those enrolled in online and distance programs can still qualify for a housing allowance.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill not only helps veterans pay for their college education, but can also be transferred to dependents and spouses in many cases. It also offers additional financial assistance through its provisional programs, including the Yellow Ribbon Program and Tuition Assistance Top-Up. Veterans can find other resources on the GI Bill's website that help with knowing what to look for in choosing a school and how to effectively prepare for success in their programs.

Yellow Ribbon Program
Montgomery GI Bill
Tuition Assistance Top-Up
$600 Buy-Up
Tutorial Assistance

State Programs for Veteran Education

Veterans and their families (dependents and spouses) can qualify for additional education assistance through their states. Depending on where they live and study, they may be able to qualify for discounted or free tuition and other applicable costs. Veterans and their families should contact their local VA office through the Veterans Affairs website to find out more information. In addition, (provided by the Department of Defense) has a list of many state resources available to veterans. For example, Florida waives the cost of undergraduate tuition for certain veterans who have received the Purple Heart or another qualifying award, as well as tuition deferment for all veterans.

Additional Financial Assistance

Veterans can obtain several other types of financial assistance outside of their GI Bill benefits, including tuition reimbursement, scholarships and student loans. Veterans interested in acquiring additional financial aid should first fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). More information can be found in this comprehensive FAFSA and Financial Aid Guide for College.

Tuition Reimbursement: Tuition reimbursement is a type of assistance which involves employers repaying student expenses for their employees. More and more companies are offering tuition reimbursement as a sort of incentive to new and existing employees. Some of the many companies that offer this type of assistance are Home Depot, UPS, Bank of America and TDIndustries.

Student Loans: Student veterans can also qualify for student loans through the federal government. Student loans are paid to schools by the government and have varying rates and repayment plans. Loan repayment plans are available in 10 to 30-year increments, and some plans forgive the principle loan balance after around 25 years.

Veterans Scholarships: Scholarships are available from hundreds of organizations, and they can be awarded based on field of study, academic performance, heritage and other criteria. Veterans can find scholarships through their schools as well as external sources, such as the U.S. Department of Labor's Career One Stop. In addition to the countless scholarships that are available to all students, veterans can qualify for scholarships that are offered specifically to veterans and their families. Veteran scholarships have varying qualification criteria, such as demographic, time served and specific branch.

Veteran Scholarship Opportunities

  • Tillman Scholars Program: The Pat Tillman Foundation awards an average of $11,000 every year to students based on humility in leadership as well as their dedication to learning and service. This scholarship program is available to veterans, active duty military and spouses who are enrolled in an undergraduate or graduate degree program full-time. To apply for this scholarship, students will need to submit the required documents, including essays, prior to the beginning of March each year.
  • The Purple Heart Scholarship Fund: This scholarship is offered by the Military Order of the Purple Heart (MOPH) to members who have received a Purple Heart, their spouses and dependents, as well as dependents and spouses of military members who were killed as a result of duty. The application for the Purple Heart Scholarship Fund is due by May 15th, 2020 and has a value of $5,000 that can be applied to tuition, fees and other expenses.
  • The Graydon and Myrth Fox Scholarship: Veterans and their families can qualify for a renewable award in the amount of $1,000 to $5,0000. The scholarship is offered by the Sacramento Region Community Foundation and requires students to attend an accredited institution and have financial need. Applicants are required to submit verification of honorable service, and must submit all required items by March 6th of 2021.
  • Army Women's Foundation Legacy Scholarships: The Army Women's Foundation offers scholarships to women soldiers and veterans as well as their children in the amounts of $1,000 or $2,500. Awards are based on merit, community service and letters of recommendation, and can be applied to certificate programs, undergraduate programs as well as graduate programs. Applications are due early in the year; the next scholarship due date is January 2nd, 2021.

Choosing a School as a Veteran

When deciding on which school is right for your program, there are several things that you should look for. Find a school that is properly accredited, allows you to earn credit for your military experience and is eligible for any GI Bill benefits that you qualify for. In addition, if you plan to pursue your program on campus, consider the on-campus resources and support that are available to you.

Accreditation and Comparing GI Benefits by School

There are thousands of schools to choose from across the United States, but not all of them will provide you with a quality education. To earn accreditation, schools must meet quality standards that are set by an accrediting organization. The criteria can include things like graduation rates, curriculum and faculty experience. Schools can have regional accreditation or national accreditation; regional accreditation is usually considered the more prestigious option while national accreditation has more relaxed quality standards.

GI Bill Comparison Tool

You can use the GI Bill Comparison Tool to find colleges that are approved for GI Bill use and compare benefits available for different schools. The comparison tool shows a substantial amount of information about schools, including accreditation status and type, student complaints, costs (including how much is covered), if the school offers credit for experience, and what VA benefits can be used at the institution.

WEAMS School Locator

You can also use the WEAMS Institution Search to find schools that accept VA benefits. Schools can be searched by state, name and type. You also have the option to search specifically for Yellow Ribbon schools, which are those that discount tuition for veterans. Even if you do not search specifically for Yellow Ribbon, it will be displayed on the pages of participating schools.

Getting Credit for Military Experience

There's a good chance that you can earn college credits for your training and experience in the military. Many schools offer credits for experience based on knowledge assessments and portfolios, and veterans can earn specific credits through evaluation of their experience. It's important to ask your candidate schools about these credits to see how many you can qualify for prior to enrolling in any one program.

American Council on Education: For military experience credits, schools usually abide by the recommendations set by the American Council on Education (ACE). The ACE Military Guide provides a wealth of information about earning credits based on specific training and experience. For example, a veteran who took a specific business systems analysis course between the 1970s and 1980s can earn 3 credit hours towards an undergraduate program, recorded as a business systems analysis course.

Joint Services Transcripts: The Joint Services Transcript, or JST, translates military experience into civilian language. This allows admissions counselors to effectively review the relevant experience of student veterans. By using JST, veterans of all branches can accurately show their relevant skills and education in order to save time and unneeded coursework.

Credit-by-Examination: DANTES offers free examinations that can be used to waive college courses. You can take any of the 33 available exams, covering subjects such as business, composition and mathematics, and earn college credits with a qualifying score. Since there is no cost to you, earning these credits can potentially save you several thousand dollars that would otherwise be spent on courses you don't necessarily need.

Campus Veterans Services

If you are planning to pursue your college program on campus, you should find out what on-site benefits each of your candidate schools offer to veterans. Many schools have on-campus veterans services that can include a variety of resources, such as VA benefits assistance and specially trained advisors. These service centers can provide support as you transition from military to academics as well as from academics to a civilian career. Some of the many schools that offer on-campus services to student veterans are:

  • The University of Texas at Austin: The University of Texas at Austin offers various resources to student veterans, including academic support, wellness counseling and career services.
  • University of Denver: The University of Denver's Veterans Services Office provides support and resources to student veterans from the time of admission through their alumni years.
  • University of Pittsburgh: The Office of Veterans Services at the University of Pittsburgh assists veterans and their families with transitioning, academics and accessing veterans benefits.

Online Learning for Veterans

Many veterans preparing for school have more responsibilities and time commitments than traditional students, making online college programs a great option. Online programs can often be completed at times that are convenient to students, meaning you can log in at 10 a.m. or the middle of the night. You can pursue a multitude of online degrees through programs offered by colleges across the United States. Many online programs have lower tuition rates, especially for students who are out-of-state residents, and enable you to take the number of courses that best fit your schedule.

Veteran Campus Life and Continued Support

The following services can help to maintain social activity, physical and mental health as well as time management and assistance for veteran families both during enrollment and after graduation.

Health Services for Student Veterans

Veterans can access health services through a number of sources, including the VA and many higher education institutions after enrollment. For example, the schools listed below offer health services to student veterans.

  • University of Montana: The University of Montana's Curry Health Center offers dental, medical, counseling and other healthcare services on campus.
  • Palomar College: Palomar College's Veterans Services is a centralized hub for locating resources such as disability services, behavioral health counseling and student health services.
  • University of Georgia: The University of Georgia's University Health Center offers discounted rates for veterans at specialty clinics as part of its Healthy Veterans Program.

VA Campus Toolkit

The VA Campus Toolkit connects student veterans with available resources through their schools and local VA offices. Veterans can seamlessly access counseling and other services from their local VA offices and campus service centers. While the individual reasons for utilizing these services vary, some veterans may find these services helpful in adjusting to more independent thinking, because of their training to follow commands, and other types of mental and emotional transitions.

Disability Services

Student veterans can also utilize the disability services office of their schools for a number of different disabilities, including those that can't be seen (such as PTSD), hearing problems, and other physical problems (such as back pain that makes it difficult to sit in the standard classroom desks or hand pain that prevents regular typing or pencil holding). Offices of disability services can provide various types of assistance, including notetaking, service animal accommodations, testing accommodation and excused absences. More information about resources available to students can be found in this College Guide for Students with Disabilities.

Community Engagement

In addition to health services, veterans have access to local (including school-based), regional and national community groups. These groups offer networking events and contacts that provide student veterans with support during their academic programs. Students may be able to enjoy events such as cookouts and similar outdoor activities, as well as group discussions.

Student Veterans of America

Student Veterans of America, or SVA, is a national group focused on connecting veterans with available educational, community and career resources. SVA focuses on student veteran empowerment, both in the classroom and in the world beyond it. Veterans may also qualify for financial or other assistance through the SVA. Learn more about SVA via this Student Veterans of America guide.

Veterans Knowledge Community

The Veterans KC is a national group that offers collaboration and support to current military and veterans as well as their dependents. Some of the initiatives of the group include the Green Zone Program, which seeks to create trained and supportive campuses for veterans, as well as Veterans Upward Bound (VUB). VUB is dedicated to helping veterans reach their highest potential through services such as enrichment and support.

School-Based Groups

Many colleges and universities also offer their own campus-based veterans community groups, a few of which are listed below.

  • University of California, Santa Barbara: UCSB's Student Veteran Organization and Military Families Organization assist veterans and families with community support through meetings and events.
  • University of Nebraska, Omaha: UNO's Student Veteran Organization provides student veterans with a supportive network and events, including volunteering and career opportunities.
  • Yale School of Management: The Veterans Club at Yale School of Management offers an inclusive network of students, staff, faculty and alumni who are current or former members of the military.

Employment Support for Veterans After Graduation

The U.S. Department of Defense estimates that as of 2019, up to 245,000 members of the military leave for civilian life each year. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, veterans over 25 with a bachelor's degree or higher had an employment rate of 97.5% as of 2018. There are several helpful resources for veterans who have graduated and are ready to enter the civilian workforce. Career counseling and placement assistance can be found through a multitude of government, private, local and national resources, some of which are discussed below.

VA Assistance
State Organizations
Troops to Teachers
USA Jobs
U.S. Department of Labor
Apprenticeship Programs

Scholarships for Spouses and Dependents of Veterans

There are many veterans benefits that can be transferred to their families, as well as benefits that are specifically available to spouses and dependents of veterans.

GI Bill Transfer

Any unused amount of the GI Bill can be transferred to dependents or spouses. While in the military, service members can initiate transfer of their benefits to their family members. After separation, new transferees cannot be added but veterans can adjust and redistribute the initial transfer orders. Spouses and dependents need to be enrolled in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System and can utilize the full 36-month benefit if available.

Other VA Benefits

In addition to GI Bill assistance, dependents and spouses of veterans may qualify for other types of financial aid and assistance.

  • Survivors' and Dependents' Educational Assistance: Referred to as Chapter 35, this benefit provides training and educational assistance to dependents and spouses of veterans who were killed or permanently and totally disabled as a result of duty.
  • Fry Scholarship: This scholarship gives spouses and dependents the GI Bill benefits of military members who were killed in the line of duty. The Fry scholarship cannot be combined with the Survivors' and Dependents' Educational Assistance program.
  • Scholarships for Dependents of Veterans

    Dependents of veterans can find supplemental scholarships through several sources, including colleges, private organizations and the U.S. Department of Labor's Career One Stop. Scholarship amounts and requirements vary but are available to graduate and undergraduate students of online and on-campus programs. Further information can be found in this College Scholarships Guide for Children of Veterans.

    Resources for Spouses of Veterans

    There are resources and scholarships available specifically to spouses of veterans, including the My Career Advancement Account programs, or MyCAA. MyCAA provides as much as $4,000 in financial assistance to spouses of veterans that can be used for associate's degrees, certifications and licenses. Spouses of active duty members of the military from qualifying pay grades are eligible (except those who are legally separated).

    When I left the military, I knew I wanted to return to school and develop skills for a civilian career. I was counseled on the many resources that were available, yet I preferred to do things myself. As a result, I struggled more than I should have throughout my journey, and hope that I can save other veterans from similar challenges. Below are five things that veterans should keep in mind as they begin their school search and entry into civilian education.

    1. Ask for Help

    Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. If anything, asking teachers, academic counselors and other personnel shows just how important success is to veterans. Sometimes veterans don't realize, or forget, that they have a tremendous amount of people who are available for support and are fighting for their success. For example, class instructors are generally happy to provide clarification and assistance to students because they want students to understand and succeed.

    2. Choosing a Path

    Before choosing a school, veterans should really take the time to find what they are passionate about. As mentioned above, there are a variety of tools to help determine appropriate careers based on interests. Veterans who still aren't completely sure on a path may find it helpful to enroll in an easily transferable associate's degree program to fulfill general education requirements while they determine their longer-term goals.

    3. Considerations for School Choice

    Veterans can use their benefits at both online and on-campus programs, which each have their own benefits. Veterans with families and other commitments may benefit more from online courses, but they will lose the advantage of face-to-face discussions and on-campus services. Student veterans who need more flexible programs may be able to find an online program from a nearby school with on-campus services, and those who enroll in online programs may be able to get tutoring services through the VA.

    4. Independent Thinking

    One of the greatest adjustments of veterans who enter college programs is the shift from following orders to independent thinking. For example, a student veteran is required to write a report on a trend in business. These types of assignments (in my experience) are challenging because of the limited amount of direction. Veterans may need more time and guidance until they are able to have the level of independent thinking of their civilian peers.

    5. Utilize Veteran Groups

    In addition to the resources available through schools and the VA, it can be tremendously helpful to participate in veteran groups. On-campus veteran groups and local student veteran groups are available throughout the country and give veterans the ability to connect with other student veterans. The student experience of veterans is unique; being able to collaborate and laugh with students who are going through a similar journey can be extremely beneficial.

    Randi Brookshire
    Private First Class, U.S. Army Reserves
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