When Roberto Rodriguez decided to go back to school to get his bachelor’s degree, he was on active duty as a recruiter for the Marine Corps. He had a list of requirements when he was researching which institution would be the best one for a military student like him to attend online.
Rodriguez wanted a degree from a reputable school. The name of the university on his transcript and résumé could impress potential employers.
As an active-duty military student, he needed an online bachelor’s degree program. He could be sent across the country or the world, but as long as he had a laptop and an internet connection, he could complete his course work.
He wanted a military-friendly university and an accredited institution, one whose staff in admissions and academic student services would understand what it was like to be in the military while getting a degree at the same time.
Penn State checked those boxes for Rodriguez, but he thought Penn State, a top research university and flagship institution, was out of his reach financially.
Then he learned about the education benefits and financial aid available to him: He could combine the tuition assistance from the Department of Defense with the funding from a special grant program for Penn State World Campus military students.
He realized just how accessible a Penn State degree was.
“I wanted to go to a school that I’m truly going to be proud of,” said Rodriguez, who graduated in 2020. “All the help certainly helped me live life the way I knew and go to school at a prestigious university.”
What funding is available to military students?
The Department of Defense provides up to $4,500 per year through its Tuition Assistance Program to military service members for accredited degree programs. The cap is $250 per credit hour. Military service members in the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Space Force, Coast Guard, and their reserve components are eligible.
Undergraduate students serving in the armed forces can combine the tuition assistance with Penn State World Campus Military Grant-in-Aid. This program further reduces tuition for military personnel. Active-duty service members and their spouses are eligible.
For the 2022–23 academic year, the grant-in-aid program lowers the cost of undergraduate tuition to $362 per credit. When combined with military tuition assistance, the remaining student investment is lowered to only $112 per credit.
Service members can also use Tuition Assistance Top-Up, which closes the funding gap with GI Bill® benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs, or they can transfer VA benefits to a spouse or dependent children.
Those who apply for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) may be eligible for other funding, such as the Pell Grant, which is awarded by the federal government based on financial need. The maximum award through the federal Pell Grant program for 2022–23 is $6,895. Everyone is encouraged to complete the FAFSA, especially junior enlisted members.
The FAFSA is also required to apply for many scholarships. Penn State World Campus notifies undergraduate students who have their FAFSA applications on file about many scholarships.
Another program, the Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant, provides funding to immediate families of service members who died as a result of military service after September 11, 2001.
Joshua Valdez was active duty in the Navy when he started his course work online through Penn State World Campus in 2019. He combined the student aid from the Department of Defense and the Military Grant-in-Aid.
Valdez was an aviation rescue swimmer for more than eight years. He trained in Pensacola, Florida, and San Diego, California, and spent three years in Japan, deployed on aircraft carriers.
He returned to San Diego from Japan for a job as a rescue swimmer instructor, and while he was on shore duty, he decided it was time to finish the bachelor’s degree he began before enlisting in the Navy.
Valdez said he was drawn to Penn State World Campus in particular because of how the Military Grant-in-Aid program helped further reduce the costs closer to the tuition assistance cap.
“That was very attractive to me,” Valdez said. “I wanted to strategically plan this out where I didn't necessarily dip into my GI Bill benefits yet. I wanted to get as much of the benefits with active duty as I could. I used tuition assistance for the majority of it, and then I used grant-in-aid as well.”
Maximizing Department of Defense benefits
Valdez paced himself, taking one course the first semester, and then increased his course load to two. In his later semesters, he took three courses per term, even topping out at six in the spring of 2022, when he graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice.
His goal was to use as many financial aid benefits for active-duty service members as possible before he left the Navy.
“The last year that I was on active duty, I was a full-time student,” Valdez said. “I wanted to meet that deadline to finish my degree. I needed to get it done, and it was manageable because I was on shore duty, so I was able to kind of balance both.
“I think it was all worth it.”
Valdez used some of his Post-9/11 GI Bill benefit in his last semester, and he wants to save the remainder for a master’s degree. He is exploring master’s degree programs in homeland security.
Using Tuition Assistance now, the GI Bill for a master’s degree later
Roberto Rodriguez wanted to use his financial benefits the same way as Valdez. While he was on active duty for the Marine Corps, he wanted to apply the tuition assistance from the government and the grant program from Penn State World Campus to his bachelor’s degree and save his GI Bill benefits for a master’s degree in the future.
He combined the funding to help offset the costs of his bachelor’s degree while he took one, two, or three courses each semester. He started in 2012, taking one course at a time until he graduated with an associate degree in 2018.
He increased his course load to two or three per semester until he graduated in May 2020 with a Bachelor of Arts in Digital Journalism and Media.
He retired from the Marine Corps later that year. He now works in communications for a defense consultant and would like to get a master’s degree in communications.
“I wanted to make sure I graduated before my retirement from the Marine Corps and not even touch my GI Bill,” he said.
Other forms of student aid that help offset out-of-pocket tuition costs
Rodriguez said he filled out the FAFSA each semester, and he usually received some financial aid that helped cover the remaining balance after the federal aid and grant-in-aid.
“Once I figured that out, I never really had to pay out of pocket,” Rodriguez said.
Throughout his time learning online, he received several change-of-station orders, such as from 2013 to 2016, when he became the personal communications officer for Lloyd Austin, who was then commander of the U.S. Central Command. Austin is now the Secretary of Defense.
Rodriguez estimates he logged into Penn State’s learning management system, Canvas, to work on his courses from 30 different countries, including France, Belgium, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.
Rodriguez said the tuition benefits helped him fulfill his goal of graduating with a Penn State degree.
Choosing a reputable school
When Tanya Near, an information technology manager in the Navy, decided to go back to school as a military student, a university’s academic reputation was her top priority.
Near could have chosen a university whose tuition rates were set to zero out the costs after the military’s Tuition Assistance Program benefits were applied. However, she saw value in getting a Penn State degree even if it meant paying out of pocket, as Penn State World Campus has long been recognized as one of the top providers of online bachelor’s degree programs by U.S. News & World Report.
“When I was looking at getting my degree, the reputation of the university played a huge part in the decision,” said Near, who was working in the Pentagon when she enrolled in 2018. “Because Penn State World Campus was so highly regarded, it was worth paying the difference.”
As Near was transitioning out of the military, she received a corporate job offer before graduating, which she attributed to her decision to choose Penn State.
Near had a fellowship in IT with a national media technology company, which fulfilled the Penn State internship experience requirement. At the end of the internship, the company offered her a full-time position in IT.
It also gave her the chance to use the company’s tuition reimbursement program toward her degree and retire from military service without the military education benefits for active-duty personnel. She graduated in 2020 with a Bachelor of Science in Security and Risk Analysis and a minor in Information Sciences and Technology.
“One thing led to another and another to where I'm at right now,” said Near, who lives in Arlington, Virginia. “Where would I be if I hadn't received the Military Grant-in-Aid that allowed me to go do this internship through this school, which was so respected by this company that gave me a job that continued to pay for this education?”
Scholarships for military service members
Near was the recipient of three college scholarships available through Penn State World Campus: two specifically for undergraduate military students and another for adult learners.
In all, Penn State World Campus offers more than 40 scholarships that are awarded to hundreds of students. Eleven scholarships are specifically for military students.
Near said the scholarships helped offset costs even more after the federal student aid she received through the Department of Defense and Penn State World Campus Military Grant-in-Aid. She used some of the funding to help pay for course materials, such as textbooks.
“Even if it’s $100 or $200, it does help offset the costs where you are not worried about having to take out a loan for school,” she said.
Benefits for military family members
The Military Grant-in-Aid offered through Penn State World Campus can be used by military spouses. Julie Brubaker, whose husband was serving in the Army, used the benefit when she enrolled in 2016 to start working on her bachelor’s degree.
Brubaker said the Grant-in-Aid made her decision to enroll easy.
Throughout her degree program, she balanced multiple responsibilities: raising three children, working full-time, and taking courses. There were 10 months in 2017 during which her husband was deployed to Kuwait, which was challenging.
Brubaker graduated in 2019 with a Bachelor of Science in Finance. She traveled to University Park with her family to attend the ceremony, as Penn State World Campus students are invited to do. During the ceremony, she wore a blue gown and a cap that read “Believe in yourself.”
“I wanted to complete something I felt proud of,” Brubaker said. “I have so much pride in it because I know how hard I worked.”
Using GI Bill benefits
Some student veterans choose to use their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits for their undergraduate degrees, as did Mary Thomas.
Thomas retired from the Air Force in 2006, and one of the promises she had made to herself was to return to finish her college education.
She left college in the early 1980s, unsure which major to pick or how to pay for tuition. She joined the Air Force, married her husband who also served in the Air Force, and had a decades-long career.
When her husband used his GI Bill to finish his degree, she was motivated to do the same.
“I knew I needed to go back and finish what I started,” said Thomas. “And I knew I only wanted to go back to Penn State.”
Thomas said the Penn State World Campus staff that is dedicated to military students made the enrollment process easy. She applied her GI Bill and transferred credits from some associate degrees she earned while in the Air Force.
“From the beginning, when I contacted admissions and asked how I could get back in after 30-some years, until the final semester, I’ve been encouraged by staff members, advisers, professors, and even some classmates along the way,” Thomas said.
Thomas graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Organizational Leadership in 2020.
Military support staff
The staff members who helped Thomas navigate her return to school are part of the Penn State World Campus Military Support team.
Military admissions counselors can assist prospective undergraduate students with using their benefits and completing their Penn State application, and they can provide guidance on the more than 30 bachelor’s degree programs offered online.
Penn State World Campus has an expert team of School Certifying Officials who help military students who have applied and have been accepted use their VA benefits. They can explain how to apply for the benefits, describe the financial programs available, and discuss the options that may be the best fit for each student.
Undergraduate military students who enroll will be paired with a military academic adviser. This adviser can help students with planning their academic program, staying on track, choosing courses, and managing the impacts of deployments, trainings, or relocations.
Find out more about the benefits through Penn State World Campus
The military students like Rodriguez, Valdez, Near, Thomas, and Brubaker were determined to earn their bachelor’s degrees to complete a personal goal.
Some of them started their degrees while they were on active duty, while others went back to school after they left the military.
They have now completed that academic goal, and the various forms of financial assistance available to military students made a college degree more accessible to them.
Explore the benefits and financial aid available to military students online through Penn State World Campus.
GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government website at https://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill.
The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.