Most of the branches of the active Armed Forces offer the Department of Defense’s Tuition Assistance (TA) program. It pays service members tuition costs up to a specified amount per credit and maximum amount per year. For example, the Army uses the figures of $250 per credit with a $4,500 yearly cap.
What happens if your tuition exceeds the per-credit cap or you reach your yearly cap early in the academic year? You have a couple of choices.
One, you can pay what is not covered out-of-pocket. Two, you can use your GI Bill to pay the difference that exceeds current TA caps – a program called Tuition Assistance Top-Up.
Know up front that using this program will reduce your remaining GI Bill benefits. Depending on the GI Bill you have and your post-service education goals, it can be a good program to use.
Most service members have either the Montgomery GI Bill – Active Duty (MGIB-AD) or the Post 9/11 GI Bill, both which can be used with the Top-Up program. Many service members have both GI Bills, but more on that in a moment.
Each of the two GI Bills reduce entitlement – the number of months of GI Bill benefits – at different rates. Under the MGIB-AD, entitlement is reduced at the rate of one month for every month of benefits paid out. Right now one month of benefits is $1,789 for a full-time student.
Post 9/11 GI Bill
Under the New GI Bill, entitlement is reduced by one month for each month of school where Top-Up was used, regardless of the amount paid by the VA.
To put each GI Bill into perspective, let’s use an example of a credit costing $450 per semester at a school. By using Top-Up, the first $250 is paid by your service branch through TA. The other $200 is also paid by your service branch, but billed back to the VA. Under the MGIB-AD, the VA would reimburse your service branch and reduce your GI Bill entitlement by about 3.5 days.
However, under the Post 9/11 GI Bill, the VA would still pay that $200 to your service branch, but would reduce your entitlement by the duration of the class, which in the case of a semester, is four months. As you can see, using Top-Up with the MGIB is a better bang for your buck than with the Post 9/11 GI Bill.
The Deciding Factor
Still, the Top-Up program can be right for you depending on your post-military education goals. For example, if you don’t plan to go to school after getting out, or don’t plan on transferring benefits to a dependent, using your Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits now could be the right move for you. However, if your plan is to get an advanced degree after getting out, or to transfer benefits to your spouse or child(ren), it may be more advantageous to pay the difference out of pocket now and conserve GI Bill benefits for your dependents or to pay the costlier advanced degree tuition.
If you are a service member that has both GI Bills, you could use your MGIB for Top-Up and once your 36 months of MGIB entitlement is exhausted, switch to the Post 9/11 GI Bill and get an additional 12 months of entitlement to help pay towards an advanced degree, bringing your total combined GI Bill entitlement up to the maximum of 48 months instead of 36.
NOTE: Tuition Assistance Top-Up is not available for Selected Reserve members using the Montgomery GI Bill – Selected Reserve (MGIB-SR) or for active duty veterans already out of the military.