5 Steps to Prepare for Higher Education

Navy officers testing in classroom

Perhaps you’ve decided to pick up some new skills or helpful knowledge. Maybe you’re leaving the service and want to re-create yourself or redefine your career. No matter why you’re pursuing higher education, you need a game plan — a course of action to get you from today to that moment you walk across the stage holding your diploma in hand. Here are some practical steps to take.

Step 1: Contact the Voluntary Education Program

Before you get buried in college brochures, speak with an education professional through the Voluntary Education Program. An education professional can help guide you through planning and paying for your education, as well as eligibility requirements. Find your service-specific contact information below:

Step 2: Choose a college

Deciding which college to attend is much easier when you have the right information. As a service member, you have access to useful resources such as College Navigator, a free online tool from the National Center for Education Statistics. College Navigator provides information on more than 7,000 postsecondary education institutions so you can compare schools’ tuition, financial aid, accreditation information, graduation and retention rates and more.

TA DECIDE is another helpful tool for comparing schools and programs. Designed for participants of the Department of Defense Military Tuition Assistance Program, it provides education costs and outcomes, as well as information about other military students who are participating in the tuition assistance program.

Still have questions about selecting a college or program? Contact your service-specific Voluntary Education Program listed above or contact your installation’s education center.  Education counselors can help you decide which programs are the best fit based on your goals and help you find:

  • Contact information for military-friendly schools and institutions that allow you to transfer previous college credits
  • How to get your credentials converted and diplomas translated to meet state- or country-specific requirements
  • Profiles on specific colleges and their credentials

Step 3: Take your college admission exams

Get ready for some studying even before college begins. Most colleges and universities require admission exams with your application, such as the SAT Reasoning Test, the SAT Subject Tests, the American College Testing, or ACT, Readiness Assessment, Graduate Record Examinations or GRE, Graduate Management Admission Test or GMAT, and the General Education Development Test.

The Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support, or DANTES, can help you prepare for registration and cover the cost of some academic tests. DANTES also offers college prep resources that can help you prepare for these admission exams, sharpen study skills and identify your interests and aptitudes in choosing an area of study or career path. Visit DANTES to learn more or to contact an education counselor.

Step 4: Convert your military experience to college credit

The tests you endured in combat can count just as much as quizzes in a classroom. The Joint Services Transcript converts your military experience into civilian college credit, providing documented evidence to colleges and universities of professional military education, training and occupation experiences. The Joint Services Transcript is a collaborative transcript program that replaces previous transcript programs, making it easier for colleges to read and recommend credits.

Step 5: Understand your financing options

As a service member, you have several options that can help fund your schooling — so that you can concentrate on studying rather than paying the bills. Contact your installation’s education center for assistance with your college financial plan. Department of Defense education counselors can help you identify grants and other kinds of assistance for which you are eligible. Here is a sampling of programs and loans available:

  • Military tuition assistance — provided by each service branch, offering up to $4,500 of assistance per fiscal year
  • Montgomery GI Bill® and MGIB Tuition Top-Up Programs — funded by the Department of Veterans Affairs
  • Tax credits and deductions — such as the American Opportunity Tax Credit and the Lifetime Learning Credit
  • Federal grants and loans — such as the Federal Pell Grant, Federal Perkins Loans, Stafford Loans and Federal Supplemental Education Opportunities Grant

More resources

Take the next step toward your education. Find education resources, consult voluntary education websites, read up on preparing for higher education and reach out to get the assistance you need. Your service’s Voluntary Education Program and your installation’s military education center are also available to help you achieve your education goals.

Voluntary Education Department of Defense Policy

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Military programs are governed by federal law, Department of Defense policy and additional policies specific to the branches of service. Below are the DOD policies that govern voluntary education programs in the military including tuition assistance, Montgomery GI Bill and the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

DOD Directive 1322.08E, “Voluntary Education Programs for Military Personnel,” January 3, 2005, certified as current April 23, 2007 This directive updates policy that establishes voluntary education programs in each of the branches of service and states that the amount of monetary support provided to service members as tuition assistance shall be uniform across the services.

DOD Instruction 1322.19 CE-01, “Voluntary Education Programs in Overseas Areas,” April 23, 2020 This instruction establishes policy, assigns responsibilities and prescribes uniform procedures consistent with DOD Instruction 1322.25 (Reference (d)) for the delivery of voluntary education programs and services provided to service members serving in overseas areas, whether assigned to an enduring or permanent location or deployed to a contingency location.

DOD Instruction 1322.25, “Voluntary Education Programs,” April 2, 2020 This instruction implements policy, assigns responsibilities and prescribes procedures for the operation of voluntary education programs in DOD and establishes the Interservice Voluntary Education Working Group.

Voluntary Education Websites

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These resources offer information on federal grants and loans, scholarships for injured service members and other education tools.

Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support, or DANTES: DANTES supports the off-duty voluntary education programs of the Department of Defense by helping eligible service members and their families pursue their education goals. DANTES provides programs and services in certification, counselor support, distance learning and examinations, and manages the Tuition Assistance Program.

Department of Education: This website provides information for students, parents, teachers and administrators, including links related to student aid, grants, scholarships and education legislation.

Department of Veterans Affairs Education Benefits: The VA offers education programs and benefits for veterans of military service as well as education benefits to surviving family members. Find information on education and training, veteran readiness and employment, GI Bill benefits and more.

The American Council on Education Military Guide:  The ACE Military Guide is an updated version of the Guide to Evaluation of Education Experiences in the Armed Services, the standard reference for recognizing learning acquired through military experience. The ACE Military Guide allows personnel to search by military occupational specialty or courses and provides the recommended academic credit equivalent.

Federal Student Aid: Federal Student Aid is an official website of the U.S. government that provides information and resources for college students and their families to assist them in choosing the right college, applying for financial aid and repaying student loans.

Test Site Lookup: DANTES provides a website allowing service providers to search and retrieve contact information for DANTES testing sites by location, service branch, major command and/or by ship name for the Navy and Coast Guard.

Federal Grants and Loans

Various federal grants and loans exist to assist military and non-military students in paying for the costs of higher education:

  • Federal grants – A grant is a form of financial aid that does not need to be repaid by the student. The federal government offers grant programs for eligible students in the form of the Federal Pell Grant, the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, the Academic Competitiveness Grant and the National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent Grant, or the National SMART Grant.
  • Federal Perkins Loan Program – Federal Perkins Loans are similar to Stafford Loans, except that the student borrows (and subsequently repays) the financial aid from the university instead of the federal government. Federal Perkins Loans are low-interest student loans for undergraduate and graduate students with exceptional financial need. The loans have shorter time periods for repayment than Stafford Loans, but Perkins Loans do not require that students are enrolled at least half-time.
  • Free Application for Federal Student Aid – The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is the required application for students seeking financial aid from the U.S. government for their education costs.
  • Federal Direct Student Loans – The William D. Ford Federal Direct Student Loan Program replaced the Stafford Loan Program in 2010. These loans consist of both Direct Subsidized Loans and Direct Unsubsidized Loans, both administered by the U.S. Department of Education. The Department of Education pays the interest on Direct Subsidized Loans while students are enrolled at least half-time, for the first six months after students leaves school and during periods of deferment or postponement of loan payments. For Direct Unsubsidized Loans, students are responsible for paying the interest on the loans during all periods of the loan. Both the subsidized and unsubsidized loans do not require repayment until after the student graduates, leaves school or drops below half-time status.