With their names similar, there often is confusion as to the differences between the two programs. One big difference is that Tuition Assistance (TA) can be used by itself, while Top-Up is used in conjunction with TA and the GI Bill – either the Montgomery GI Bill-Active Duty (MGIB-AD) or the Post 9/11. Below is an overview of each program, but because of changes and various nuances of each program between the various military branches, be sure to check with your Education Counselor for the current rules.

Tuition Assistance

Mandated by the Department of Defense (DoD), TA is a financial assistance program that active duty members and some mobilized Selected Reservists can use to pursue a post-secondary degree up through the master’s level. Under the DoD guidelines, military branches can pay an authorized school directly for tuition costs up to $250 per credit or up to $4,500 per fiscal year for a service member to go to school on their off-duty time.

Because the Coast Guard is part of the Department of Homeland Security and not the DoD, their TA program only covers up to $4,000 per year. The Navy and Army restricted the guidelines further by limiting their service members to 16 semester hours per year.

Students using TA must maintain at least a GPA equivalent of a “C” for undergraduate courses and a “B” for graduate courses. A lack of performance, or withdrawing from a course for reasons other than personal illness or military duty, can require the student to pay back expenses paid by TA.

Some of the branches have time-in-service requirements before TA will be approved. While the Coast Guard and Air Force do not, Marines must serve for 24 months, sailors for one year at their first permanent duty station and soldiers for one year after Advanced Individual Training (AIT) or Basic Officer Leader Course (BOLC).

Tuition Assistance Top-Up

For courses with tuition exceeding the $250 per credit cap, or for service members reaching their annual cap before the end of the fiscal year, Top-Up can be used. Under Top-Up, a military branch bills the VA for costs exceeding what they can pay. The VA in turn pays the service branch for the billed amount and deducts entitlement from the service members MGIB-AD or Post 9/11 GI Bill.

Difference in GI Bill Charged Entitlement

The amount of entitlement charged is where the biggest difference comes in. If using the MGIB-AD, the entitlement deducted is based on the amount the VA pays to the military branch at the current rate of payment. For example, the current MGIB-AD rate is $1,857 for a full-time student. If the VA paid the military branch $1,857 for the semester, only one month of entitlement would be deducted.

However, the Post 9/11 GI Bill entitlement deduction is different because it does not work on a fixed monthly amount. For the same amount billed for the semester under the Post 9/11 GI Bill, a full semester (usually four months) of entitlement would be deducted regardless of how much (or how little) the VA paid the military branch.

The Post 9/11 GI Bill can be used in conjunction with TA and for many service members it may be a better use of entitlement rather than using it as part of Top-Up. Keep in mind that active duty members using their Post 911 GI Bill do not get the housing allowance as they would if using their New GI Bill after getting out. On average, that is a $1,300 per month loss of money.

TA, and Top-Up in some cases, are great programs to get a jump on a post-secondary education while serving with minimal out-of-pocket expense. Just be sure to explore all options with your base or post education counselor before enrolling.

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Kness retired in November 2007 as a Senior Noncommissioned Officer after serving 36 years of service with the Minnesota Army National Guard of which 32 of those years were in a full-time status along with being a traditional guardsman. Kness takes pride in being able to still help veterans, military members, and families as they struggle through veteran and dependent education issues.