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Earning A Degree While In The Military

Oct 9, 2020

Many military members and veterans are looking for ways to earn their college degrees. The dramatic downsizing of active-duty personnel since 1990 is a key reason why. There are now fewer available positions in the Armed Forces, and the competition for promotions is more intense. So a quality degree program can definitely help you stand out from the ranks.

In fact, fewer than one in ten active-duty service members have a bachelor’s and only four in ten military officers have a master’s. Also, for a veteran or those ready to retire from service, more employers than ever are looking for candidates who have attended a four-year degree program.

So what’s the best college for active-duty military students or the best colleges for veterans? This guide will provide helpful tips on what to look for in a college and how to successfully earn your academic degree while you serve our country.

Why it can be difficult for military members to earn a degree.

As with anything worth working for, there are going to be some challenges in attending an academic institution to pursue a degree program. But as a service member, you’re already trained to persevere and overcome! Some of the difficulties you may face include:

  • Timing—You have an unpredictable schedule, work unusual hours, and/or spend time in the field, making it hard to participate in set, daytime classes. Academic institutions don't always have the preparation for working with active-duty military students hoping to get a bachelor or master degree.

  • Location—You’re often deployed or re-stationed, making it tricky to start and finish your degree at the same brick-and-mortar university. Students who are pursuing degree programs and also are service members may not have the luxury of choosing where to live and work.

  • Transferring credits—If you already have academic credits, it can be tough finding a school that readily accepts them or navigating the transfer process in general. Military students may worry that their time serving may impact their academic records for some institutions.

  • Costs—You’re on a tight budget and are unsure if you can afford the rising cost of tuition, even with your GI Bill and other tuition assistance programs.

  • Family obligations—Time with your friends and family is already limited when you serve the country, so it can be challenging to find the time to study or work in schooling. Students may worry that a degree program will take away from their already busy life.

  • Length of commitment—You only have a short window to attend college (to get a promotion or before a post assignment ends) and don’t have time to spend four years on a degree program. Students may worry their academic window is closing, giving them few options to actually go back to school.

Military students also often have difficulty navigating the time-consuming and bureaucratic process of applying to schools. Here are a few resources from the U.S. Department of Education to help you select the right academic institution for an easier application and enrollment process:

  • The College Financing Plan uses a standardized form to simplify tuition, fees, and financial aid information for more informed decisions.

  • The College Scorecard helps you quickly compare the degree programs, tuition costs, and admissions for up to 10 schools.

  • The College Navigator provides school retention and graduation rates, includes a tuition cost calculator, and helps you build a My Favorites list to further analyze your top choices.

Another tool for ranking the best college for military students or veterans is the Paying for College web page. Here you can filter in-depth financial information on your top prospective colleges and turn your financial aid offer into an actionable payment plan for your tuition.

How can I earn a degree when serving in the military?

Even though the obstacles listed can seem daunting, there are easy solutions for overcoming them—which is why more military students and veterans are earning their degrees. Now it’s your turn to join them!

The best way to earn a degree when serving in the military is to look for a college that offers:

  • Online college

  • A flexible schedule

  • Competency-based education (CBE)

  • Easy credit transfers

  • Affordable tuition

Online college.

Military life means you’re often on the go. By choosing an online college over a traditional college, you’ll be able to work on your degree wherever the government sends you. Whether that’s ordering you to a new post, new deployment, or extended training at another base. Since your online college is virtual, there’s no need to transfer schools or apply to a satellite campus to continue your education. Online colleges bring learning to you.  

It’s important to note that not all online colleges are the same. To ensure you get the most value from your degree program, make sure that the online college is accredited. If your degree isn’t going to be respected by employers, then what’s the point of earning it in the first place?

You should also look for an online college that has offered online degree programs for quite some time. WGU, for example, has offered online degree programs since 1997. We’ve refined the virtual learning process and underlying technology to support more robust, rigorous, and effective programs than schools that are new to the game.

Flexible schedule.

Being a part of the military, you have many responsibilities—which is why picking a university with a flexible schedule you can actively participate in is essential for study success. This means having:

  • Online access to coursework and assessments—so you can work on your degree program whenever and wherever you have time (on base during lunch, at home after your family’s asleep, while traveling for training, etc.).

  • No set log-in times—so you’re not restricted to when you can view learning materials or take tests.

  • After-hours instructor availability—so you can get answers to your critical course-related questions when you need them and when you’re available, even on the weekends!

Competency-based education.

Competency-based education is a huge advantage for people in the military. Why? Because it enables you to accelerate your learning, helping you secure a promotion faster or finish your degree before you change posts or retire from service.

What’s competency-based education? This is a valuable educational benefit that means you are measured by your skills and knowledge versus time spent in class. At WGU, for example, a student can move through each course (submit papers and take tests) as soon as they have learned the material.

So if you’re working on your MBA and you already know a lot about leadership from your military career, you can probably pass through the leadership courses quickly. Whereas, if you were in a traditional university with a traditional learning model, you’d have to wait until the end of a term or semester to pass one single leadership class.

Basically, with CBE, you can accelerate your graduation based on your existing skills and knowledge and/or how much time you spend on coursework. And this can help you reach your career goals (whether within the military or for a new civilian career) faster.

Transfer credits.

As mentioned earlier, a lot of people in the military already have college credits. If you’re in this boat, make sure you get the credit you deserve by selecting a traditional or online college with a generous transfer policy. This will save you both time and money in your degree program.

A word of caution…some schools will accept all of your credits but require you to take several core classes unique to their institution. Make sure to research what extra classes will be required for your degree program when you transfer to ensure that these core courses don’t outnumber the credits you transferred in.

Another tip is to look for a military-friendly university that can acknowledge your service and experience. For example, WGU can waive some requirements for transfers based on military experience that’s been ACE-reviewed and applied directly to a WGU degree program. Military students can also use DANTES and CLEP exams to waive requirements as long as they match WGU’s program criteria and meet minimum grading standards. The goal is to make degree programs as accessible for active-duty service members and veterans as possible.


Many service members put off college because they think it’s too expensive. However, you can get a quality education for less than you think. There are many tuition assistance programs designed to help military students and civilians pursue higher education. Use one of the Education Department’s selection tools listed earlier to find a university with:

  • Affordable tuition.

  • GI Bill® benefit acceptance.

  • Military Tuition Assistance.

  • Military scholarships.

  • Financial aid—federal loans and scholarships.

One way WGU makes a bachelor’s or master’s degree affordable for military personnel is by offering low, flat-rate tuition. With programs ranging from $3,225 to $4,500 per six-month term, you can complete as many courses as you can handle—enabling you to potentially earn your business, IT, healthcare, or education degree faster, which saves you even more!


Why is a degree beneficial for those in the military or veterans?

Earning a four-year degree can change the life of any active-duty service member or veteran. Not only does it typically lead to a raise in pay, but it also leads to opportunity. The opportunity to take on a new leadership role. The opportunity to try new experiences in both your personal and military life. And the opportunity to transition into a rewarding, high-paying civilian position.

Consider these stats:

  • Just four years after completing their degrees, WGU grads earn, on average, $20,000 more annually(2019 Harris Poll).

  • 77% of WGU graduates believe their college degree was worth the cost (2019 Gallup Poll).

  • 96% of employers of WGU grads say they would hire another WGU graduate (2019 Harris Poll).

As someone who has served in the Armed Forces, you bring many great benefits to the workplace. You’re disciplined, hard-working, a team player, and a creative problem solver. You also take direction well and provide excellent leadership skills and initiative. These are all characteristics that employers love.

And when you add an undergraduate or postgraduate degree to any specialty training that you’ve earned in the military, like IT, engineering, or medical, there’s no telling what you can accomplish in your career—and life!  

*The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

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