Do you want to go to school? Are you even smart enough to get out? Don’t ask what other people think. What do you think? No matter what the retention office tells you, separating is not about loyalty to your branch of service. You proved your loyalty the day you signed up and by doing your job every day after. The Department of Defense is one of this country’s largest employers. They’ll find a replacement for you — don’t worry about that. This is about you for once. This is about being prepared.

What the retention office is right about, however, is that life is tough out there. There is no safety net, no unit to fall back on. There’s no BAH, no BAS. No BS. Once you’re out, you’re pretty much on your own, so it’s important to set yourself up for success from the get-go.

When you were in basic training, some of you likely signed up for this thing called the “G.I. Bill,” which is a great way to get started maxing out those bennies. The rest of you were enrolled automatically. I’ll cover the G.I. Bill in-depth later, but first, let’s talk Tuition Assistance.

Listen, TA is as much a benefit as eating at the DFAC with none of the regret afterward. Tuition Assistance offers 100 percent of your tuition paid for while you’re on active duty. It varies slightly by branch but we’re talking about lab fees, special fees, computer fees, and up to $4,500 in tuition paid for to any accredited institution with semester hours that cost $250 or less. Fees add up, make sure you use the benefits you earned to pay for them.

And keep in mind this is not a loan. Once you finish school, you don’t have to ever look back. But you’d better work at it or be prepared for the consequences of failing a class. If that happens, Uncle Sam takes his money back in one lump sum. There are no payment plans, there are no do-overs and you can’t use TA for the same class twice. You also have to pay that money back if you leave the military before you graduate. But why would you want to leave the military without a free college degree or trade certification?

The correct answer is that you don’t.

Now you might also decide you want to go to grad school, business school, or decide to stop being a barracks lawyer and become an actual lawyer. Be sure to take those aptitude tests before you ETS. Free testing is just another educational benefit you can get for free while you’re still in. You just have to go to the education office after work instead of the Class Six.

Earning a diploma, even if it’s from Charleston Southern or Northern Illinois and not the Harvard your mama knows you deserve, will really cut into your time picking up the locals at TGI Fridays, but it’s worth the effort. Just make sure you’re not going to Bob’s Discount Degree School or anything offered on television. You can get any level of degree that you don’t already have.

If college isn’t your jam, you can use TA to learn skills like carpentry and ASE certified car repair. This is all before you ever touch your G.I. Bill benefits or take off the uniform for the last time.

Maybe you don’t have time to finish a degree using Tuition Assistance, but still want to get the most out of your education benefits — plus you’re a hotshot who can pass any test. In that case, you can go to your education office and take CLEP tests – College-Level Examination Program – for free. Pass the test with knowledge you already have and you’ll get college credit for the class. These tests are free while you’re in and are covered by your G.I. Bill when you’re out.

So take them while you’re in, genius.

Some of you could conceivably CLEP an entire degree program after going through military training. Depending on the school and the course of study you choose, you can take your Joint Services Transcript to a number of regionally-accredited school and see what they can do for you. Don’t just take the first good deal you get. Shop it around – someone might accept the whole thing.

That’s right. College credit just for basic training.

If your school of choice is more expensive than the limits set on Tuition Assistance, you need check to see if their admissions department accepted the right person and if it’s a legitimate academic institution. If a real school really did accept you and TA doesn’t cover it all, you can fill in the gap using the “Top-up” benefit of the G.I. Bill.

Now, the G.I. Bill might be the most important benefit of joining the military, so stop playing grabass on Instagram and read closely.

There are a lot of programs the G.I. Bill will cover. The “Top-up” program I just mentioned is a great benefit, but should only be used if you aren’t going to school after leaving the military. Even then, you need to consider if you’re eligible to transfer your benefits to your spouse and/or kids. If you have 10 years time in service and for some reason can’t re-enlist, you should consider transferring those benefits while you spend the rest of what’s left of your time in service wisely.

If you are going to use this benefit after you leave the military, you need to know what to do with it. College isn’t for everyone and that’s okay. You can use it for other training classes like flight training, apprenticeship programs through private employers, licensing and certification testing, and some technical non-degree programs.

For the rest of you, stay tuned to read about the ins and outs of the G.I. Bill, or what I call “probably the most important benefit of joining the military.”

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