High school seniors seek ways to avoid the college debt burden that has proven such a hardship for millions of their predecessors. In a recent post, we reviewed six strategies for obtaining a college education at an expense level so moderate that incurring student debt may not be necessary.

One of the strategies was enlistment in the U.S. Military in order to take advantage of its educational benefits. In this post, we cover the specific financial aid programs that the U.S. Military administers to help active duty service members, reservists, and veterans obtain a college education at reduced or, in some cases, no cost at all.

The U.S. Military funds college education through three major channels: the Reserve Officer’s Training Corps, the National Military Academies, and the G.I. Bill.

I. Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC)

The contribution of ROTC to America’s defense is substantial. In a recent year, ROTC graduates constituted 39% of newly commissioned Army officers, 19% percent of newly commissioned Navy and Marine Corp officers, and 38% percent of newly commissioned Air Force officers, for a combined 30% of all new officers in the U.S. Department of Defense.

A student can receive financial assistance from the ROTC program to earn a college education in exchange for an active duty service obligation in a branch of the military. ROTC develops college men and women into well-educated commissioned officers in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard. It pays some or all of the costs of the bachelor’s degrees of those who successfully enroll in a college’s ROTC program. ROTC programs collectively graduate over 6,000 student-cadets from over 2,000 colleges.

To participate in ROTC, students matriculate at any college that has an ROTC program. Students must apply to and be accepted by a college that offers an ROTC program. As cadets, they receive basic military and officer training for their chosen branch of the service. They participate in regular drill during the school year and full-time field training on a military base in the summer. Cadets take a number of specially designated ROTC courses as electives and receive credit for them toward graduation.

The ROTC Application Process

The ROTC application can be completed online at the website of the appropriate military branch. Students can set up an account and begin the application process in junior year. The deadline to submit the application is January of senior year. The application process requires further action after submission of the application itself. The application also enters students into competition for ROTC scholarships.

ROTC Scholarship Selection Boards meet to review applicants every October, January, and March. ROTC Boards rank applicants according to a point scale: Army ROTC ranks on a 1400-point scale and AFROTC ranks on a 1000-point scale. The way to win an ROTC scholarship is to score higher than other applicants in these areas of consideration:

• The interview with the ROTC Scholarship Selection Board
• SAT or ACT scores
• High school GPA
• Physical fitness test results.
• Army ROTC also scores leadership skills and a Civilian Background Experience Form.

ROTC Scholarships

ROTC scholarships are based on merit rather than need. ROTC scholarships include a four-year and a three-year program, both of which cover tuition, fees, and other costs. The results of the competition in 2021-22 are reported below by military branch:

• Army: For academic year 2021-22, 9,300 high school senior applications for the scholarship were reviewed. 2,500 applicants were awarded a scholarship. 25% of them were 4-year scholarships and 75% were 3-year scholarships.

• Navy: For the academic year 2021-22 , more than 5,000 high school seniors applied for scholarships. 1,200 applicants were awarded one.

• Air Force: For the academic year 2021-22, more than 5,000 high school seniors applied for scholarships. 1,000 applicants won awards.

• Marines: For the academic year 2021-22, more than 2,500 high school senior applications for scholarship were reviewed. 336 applicants won an award.

Depending upon the cost of the college, a four-year ROTC scholarship can be worth $160,000 or more. Scholarship winners also receive an allowance of $1,500 a year and $1,200 for books.

Admission Preferences for ROTC Scholarship Winners

Another benefit of an ROTC scholarship is that it increases the likelihood of admission to a college. Any school with an ROTC program is more likely to accept a high school applicant if an ROTC scholarship has been secured because such students will have no financial need.

Even non-scholarship ROTC applicants have an advantage in admissions. High school students planning to join ROTC should make sure that they share this information on their college application. Admissions officers at many colleges consider ROTC a positive sign of an applicant’s dedication to higher education and service.

II. National Military Academies

There are four U.S. military service academies that are part of the Department of Defense: the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York, founded in 1802; the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, founded in 1845; the United States Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, founded in 1876; and the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, founded in 1954. All academies are coed.

The admissions process for the service academies is extensive and highly competitive. The Army, Air Force, and Naval Academies require a student to submit an on-line file and proceed through a pre-candidate qualification process before an application form is provided to them. Admission to the academies is different than other colleges in that applicants must be nominated before they can be considered for admission. U.S. Senators, U.S. Representatives, the Vice President, and the President may nominate individuals to be considered for admission to an academy. The exception is the Coast Guard Academy, for which applicants participate in a national competition. The Marine Corps is part of the Navy, so its future officers are educated at the Naval Academy.

The academies are Federal public institutions, so the Federal government covers the full costs of students. Upon graduation and the awarding of a bachelor’s degree, cadets become commissioned officers in their branch of the service and are obligated to serve a minimum term of five years on active duty followed by another three years in the Reserves.

The Military Academy at West Point has an enrollment of 4,594 undergraduates and is tied for #9 in the 2022-23 U.S. News & World Report rankings for National Liberal Arts Colleges. The admission rate is 11%.

The Naval Academy has an enrollment of 4,528 undergraduates, which includes those planning to becomes officers in the Marine Corps. It is tied for #6 in the 2022-23 U.S. News & World Report rankings for National Liberal Arts Colleges. The admission rate is 7%.

The Air Force Academy has an enrollment of 4,181 undergraduates and is tied for #18 in the 2022-23 U.S. News & World Report rankings for National Liberal Arts Colleges. The admission rate is 12%.

The Coast Guard Academy has an enrollment of 1,049 undergraduates and is #1 in the 2022-23 U.S. News & World Report rankings for Regional Colleges North. The admission rate is 13%.

III. The G.I. Bill

The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the G.I. Bill, was a law that provided a range of benefits for World War II veterans. The original Act expired in 1956, but the term “G.I. Bill” is still used to refer to programs designed to assist U.S. military veterans in obtaining a college education and to provide other benefits.

The G.I. Bill is one of the best ways for financially under-resourced students to pay for college. In exchange for two years of active duty military service, a student-veteran can receive up to $49,248 in tuition assistance from the government over a 36-month period. The Forever GI Bill STEM Extension was enacted to encourage veterans to pursue fields that often require more funds than the 36 months of benefits that are normally allocated. This extension, if granted, will pay veterans up to nine additional months of regular benefits or a maximum lump sum payment of $30,000.

Eligible veterans have 15 years from the date of their honorable discharge to use their benefits if they served prior to 2013. Beginning in 2013, benefits never expire. Veterans may stop and re-start educational programs as they wish. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) administers G.I. Bill programs.

There are two steps in applying for benefits. First, the veteran selects a college or training program that’s eligible under VA rules. A list of these schools is available on the VA website. Second, a VA Form 22-1990 is submitted to the VA Regional Processing Office.

Members of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard Reserves as well as the Army and Air Force National Guard are eligible for Federal G.I. benefits. Members of the U.S. Naval Militia are not eligible for Federal benefits but may be covered by educational benefits programs in their state.

A Reservist can join the military part-time and go to college simultaneously. They serve in the military part-time, training one weekend per month and two-weeks in the summer. In exchange, they receive funding to help pay for college and are also paid a monthly stipend. However, Reservists have a minimum service requirement of at least 90 days before they can apply for educational benefits.