Military service and college: Real stories from those who’ve been there

Military student in uniform

For students considering financing their education by joining the military, these four military graduates give a first-person perspective of the benefits the military can provide. They also uncover tips you may not have heard.

Sean Passmore took his parents’ advice and went straight to college from high school. He was responsible for financing his education, and after a challenging freshman year — where he worked to balance college life with a part-time job — he reconsidered his path and joined the Army.  

We spoke with Passmore, two other veterans, and one current college student to get a first-person perspective on the benefits of paying for college through military service. While most financing options require students to pay back whatever they borrow for college tuition and living expenses, joining the military will allow you to get your education for free in exchange for your service. 

Tara Siddiq, Sid for short, always knew she wanted to go to college. She joined the Army immediately after graduating high school and started college not long after.   

Christeen Kilgore, on the other hand, had no intention of ever going to college. She joined the Army right out of high school — but when a group of women at her station all started college, she reconsidered.   

Going to college was always in the plan for Megan Reisch, but the military wasn’t. Her search for a college experience that would challenge her both academically and physically led her to the Air Force Academy — and getting her education for free was a big perk.  

As for Passmore, 18 months after joining the military, he reenrolled in college when he felt more prepared to take on the challenge of higher education.  

Top benefits of joining the military to pay for college

Passmore, Siddiq, Kilgore, and Reisch all took slightly different paths regarding how and why they used the military to finance their education, but they agreed on the top three benefits to keep in mind when considering a similar road.  

1. You get your education free

This is probably the most well-publicized benefit and one we’ve already mentioned, but it’s worth repeating. By joining the military, your entire education is covered in exchange for your service — and that’s not limited to undergraduate school. If you have an interest in continuing your studies, the military will cover additional degrees and certifications.   

Since Siddiq’s mom went to college, Siddiq saw firsthand the positive impact of continuing her education. She wanted to go to college like her mom, but Siddiq knew she’d need to find a way to pay for it herself, and the military was the answer.   

How long you’ll need to serve in the military will depend on how much education you’re interested in getting. The longer you serve, the more educational benefits are available to you.  

But as Reisch points out, for students interested in just having the military pay for a college education, you are required to serve for only five years. If you go straight from high school to college and then on to the military, that means you’d be around 27 when you finish your service, and can decide from there if you’d like to continue with the military or take your experience into the civilian sector. 

2. You are exposed to an unparalleled level of diversity

In reflecting on her time in both college and the military, Siddiq noted that the level of diversity she found in both really broadened her horizons and opened her mind. “I never considered myself to be a closed-minded person before going to college and joining the military,” she says. “But, looking back, now I think maybe I was. Not intentionally, of course, but there are so many different backgrounds and cultures I would have never been exposed to otherwise. It really helped me grow.” 

3. You get the time to get ready to go to college

Both Passmore and Kilgore are self-described late-bloomers, and neither felt equipped to attend college right out of high school. However, just because you don’t feel ready right away doesn’t mean you’ll never feel ready to take on the challenge of college.   

Passmore says, “Your first year or two in the military changes you. You grow up a little bit and develop the confidence to take on things that you may have found difficult before joining. Suddenly, you’re not the same person who struggled with school because you’ve given yourself the time needed to be fully ready to take on that challenge.”  

Three tips from students who’ve been there

For students who are considering paying for their education by joining the military, our veterans offer three pieces of advice they wish they’d received.  

1. Find out if you can go to school during your daytime shift

For students in the civilian sector who are working a full-time job and going to school, that often means taking classes at night or on the weekends. However, that doesn’t have to be the case in the military. Kilgore worked with her sergeant to make attending college classes her duty assignment, meaning she was able to take her classes during regular business hours. This won’t be the case for everyone, but it’s a possibility that students should explore with either their recruiter or their commanding officer as they weigh their options.  

2. Use the benefits for your education

In his current role, Passmore works with members of the military as they look to transition back to civilian life. His biggest piece of advice for those looking to join the military is to always use the educational benefits for yourself — and yourself alone. Don’t save them for your children or your spouse.  

It’s tempting to share such a life-changing benefit with the ones you love, but the reality is that you should use your educational benefits to help you prepare for life after the military. So unless you already have every degree and certification you need, hold on to that benefit until you’re sure you have the education to be successful in the military and beyond.  

3. Military-friendly schools are great, but there are other options as well

There aren’t limits to which college you can attend just because you’re joining the military — but it’s not uncommon for military students to pick a school with a reputation for being military-friendly. These schools tend to have a big military presence on campus, are already familiar with how to process the paperwork needed for the military to cover your education under the GI Bill, recruiters are readily available to answer any questions you might have — everything flows seamlessly.  

But, as Passmore points out, “Students don’t have to limit themselves to just military-friendly schools. They can make their college decision just like they would if they weren’t planning to enlist. Start by asking yourself what degree would work best for your long-term goals and, based on that, which university has the best possible program to make that dream possible.”  

For Reisch, the Air Force Academy had everything she was looking for in her dream school — rigorous academics, a focus on physical fitness, and job security after graduation. “Going to a service academy really sets you up for success,” she says. “Not only do you get a great education, but there are so many leadership opportunities built into the curriculum. No matter what you want to do in the long run, you’ll be prepared with a strong resume and a great background thanks to your military service.”  

The military helps prepare you for your future, no matter what that entails

Just because the military will be financing your degree doesn’t mean you can’t use your education to prepare for your dream career — in the military or out of it.  

For students planning to join the military as a way to finance their education, these four veterans are examples of how this decision can impact your life and your career long-term. The benefits given to service members extend beyond just their initial college education. The more students can advocate for themselves and research other benefits available because of their service, the more they can get from this commitment.  

Want to read more about ways to pay for college?

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