One of the perks of serving in the military is being able to go to college on the government’s dime. But the number of service members and veterans taking advantage of key education benefits has dropped, according to the latest federal fiscal-year data available.

The number of active-duty troops using tuition assistance benefits — often hailed as a key military recruitment and retention tool — has been declining in recent years, with all branches seeing drops in in fiscal 2017. Tuition Assistance, or TA as the benefit is commonly known, covers $250 per semester hour.

And fewer veterans are using the Post-9/11 GI Bill, a benefit that pays for books, housing and up to the entire cost of tuition and fees at public schools. The total number of users, which can also include military dependents, declined by about 4 percent, or 34,000 students, marking the most significant drop in the benefit’s history.

However, it’s possible that recent changes to both benefits could start to reverse those trends.

In 2017, President Trump put his signature on a new Forever GI Bill, which expands the benefit for veterans, reservists and surviving family members. Among other things, the updated GI Bill removed the 15-year time limit on the benefits for veterans who have separated from the military since Jan. 1, 2013 and retroactively restored benefits to victims of school closures.

In 2018, the Army, Navy and Marine Corps relaxed TA rules for service members. Soldiers and Marines can now use the benefit sooner in their careers, and sailors will have more money to use for classes each year.

Natalie Gross has been reporting for Military Times since 2017. She grew up in a military family and has a master's degree in journalism from Georgetown University.

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