Education in the Air Forcederek

Some people may join the military to avoid going to college, but many people join to find a way to pay for college without digging themselves into crushing amounts of debt. This page will cover the college benefits in the Air Force, and focus on any tips and tricks I have learned over the years.

Education is important to the Air Force

More than any other branch of the military (in my experience at least), and increasingly more and more each year, education is highly valued in the Air Force. There is a section on the Enlisted Performance Report (EPR – a yearly review of your performance) that is dedicated to training, to include civilian off-duty education. Your supervisor and squadron leadership will encourage you to take CLEPs and DANTES tests, or start working on classes to complete your Community College of the Air Force degree as soon as you finish your Career Development Courses. In order to be promoted to Senior Master Sergeant or Chief Master Sergeant, you must have a completed CCAF associate’s degree.

For enlisted members in the Air Force (Active duty) as of 22 April 2015:

61% have at least 12 semester hours of college credit
24.2% have a two year Associate’s Degree
8.2% have a four year Bachelor’s Degree
1.5% have a Master’s Degree
45 enlisted members have a PhD or equivalent professional degree

You can see how the Air Force’s education level has changed over time in the chart below.


Trend of education levels for enlisted Air Force members over the past 20+ years. The Y axis shows the percentage of the enlisted force that has that type of degree. Information from the AFPC IDEAS database.

As you can see, the education level for the average enlisted member has risen significantly over the past 20+ years.

I believe this is likely due to several things:

  • The poor economy has driven people towards military service when they can’t find a job in the civilian sector. This raises the average qualification level of applicants.
  • The Air Force is currently the smallest it has been since its inception. Multiple major cutbacks have been made over the past 10 years or so, perhaps kicking out people that weren’t pursuing education as heavily as others, or encouraging people to pursue more education to avoid being cut.
  • The number of people enrolled in and graduating from undergraduate programs in the US in general has increased over the same time period, though not at the same rate as in the Air Force.

 The Benefits

Tuition Assistance

Tuition assistance is a benefit that all enlisted members receive while on active duty. The Air Force will pay $4,500 per year (up to $250 per credit hour or $166.67 per quarter hour) for enlisted members to pursue a civilian education or work towards finishing their Community College of the Air Force degree. There are no restrictions on what subject you can study, but you must go to an accredited school (nationally or regionally accredited) and you must have a degree plan on file with the education office, meaning you can’t take a bunch of random courses indefinitely, it must be put towards a degree of some kind. You’ll also need the approval of your supervisor, which won’t happen until you have completed BMT, tech school, and your career development courses (volumes of textbooks that are similar to what you learned in tech school) and possibly some on-the-job training.

Many schools will match your tuition assistance caps, even if their normal tuition is higher. If your school matches the $250 per credit hour cap, you can take six classes per year with tuition assistance alone. Many bachelor’s degrees require around 120 credit hours, which means it could take you a while to finish your degree with tuition assistance alone, so start early!

Community College of the Air Force

The Air Force is the only branch with its own community college, which awards associate’s degrees based on your BMT, tech school, CDC’s, Airman Leadership School (a leadership class you take when you become a staff sergeant) and a few general studies classes which you can CLEP or take a college class for.

Here is a list of the associate’s degrees awarded based on your AFSC (information from the 2014 – 2016 CCAF catalog).

AFSC Degree
1A0XX In-Flight Refueling  Aviation Operations
1A1XX Flight Engineer  Aviation Operations
1A2XX Aircraft Loadmaster  Aviation Operations
1A3XX Airborne Mission System  Information Systems Technology
1A4XX Airborne Operations  Air & Space Operations Technology
1A6XX Flight Attendant  Aviation Operations
1A8XX Airborne Cryptologic Linguist  Intelligence Studies & Technology
1A9XX Special Missions Aviation  Aviation Operations
1B4XX Cyberspace Defense Operations  Cybersecurity
1C0XX Aviation Resource Management  Aviation Management
1C1XX Air Traffic Control  Air Traffic Operations & Management
1C2XX Combat Control  Air Traffic Operations & Management
1C3XX Command Post  Emergency Management
1C4XX Tactical Air Control Party  Information Systems Technology
1C5XX Command & Control Battle Management Operations  Air & Space Operations Technology
1C6XX Space Systems Operations  Air & Space Operations Technology
1C7XX Airfield Management  Aviation Management
1N0XX Operations Intelligence  Intelligence Studies & Technology
1N1XX Geospatial Intelligence  Intelligence Studies & Technology
1N2XX Signals Intelligence Analyst  Intelligence Studies & Technology
1N3XX Cryptologic Language Analyst  Intelligence Studies & Technology
1N4XX Network Intelligence Analyst  Intelligence Studies & Technology
1POXX Aircrew Flight Equipment  Aircrew Safety Systems Technology
1S0XX Safety  Safety
1T0XX Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape  Survival Instructor
1T2XX Pararescue  Personnel Recovery
1U0XX Career RPA Sensor Operator  Air & Space Operations Technology
1W0XX Special Operations Weather  Meteorology
2A0XX Avionics Test Station and Components  Avionic Systems Technology
2A2XX  Avionic Systems Technology
2A3X3  Aviation Maintenance Technology
2A3X4 Avionic Systems Technology
2A3X5 Avionic Systems Technology
2A3X7 Aviation Maintenance Technology
2A3X8 Aviation Maintenance Technology
2A5X1 Aerospace Maintenance Aviation Maintenance Technology
2A5X2 Aviation Maintenance Technology
2A5X3 Avionic Systems Technology
2A5X4 Aviation Maintenance Technology
2A6X1 Aerospace Propulsion Aviation Maintenance Technology
2A6X2  Aerospace Ground Equipment Technology
2A6X3 Aviation Maintenance Technology
2A6X4 Aviation Maintenance Technology
2A6X5 Aviation Maintenance Technology
2A6X6 Aviation Maintenance Technology
2A7X1 Aircraft Metals Technology  Metals Technology
2A7X2  Nondestructive Testing Technology
2A7X3  Aircraft Structural Maintenance Technology
2A7X5  Aircraft Structural Maintenance Technology
2A8XX Avionic Systems Technology
2A9XX Avionic Systems Technology
2F0XX Fuels  Logistics
2G0XX Logistics Plans  Logistics
2M0X1 Missile Maintenance  Electronic Systems Technology
2M0X2  Missile & Space Systems Maintenance
2M0X3  Mechanical & Electrical Technology
2P0XX Precision Measurement Equipment Laboratory  Electronic Systems Technology
2R0XX Maintenance Management Analysis  Maintenance Production Management
2R1XX Maintenance Management Production  Maintenance Production Management
2S0XX Materiel Management  Logistics
2T0XX Traffic Management  Transportation
2T1XX Vehicle Operations  Transportation
2T2XX Air Transportation  Transportation
2T3X1 Vehicle Maintenance  Vehicle Maintenance
2T3X2  Vehicle Maintenance
2T3X7  Maintenance Production Management
2W0XX Munitions Systems  Munitions Systems Technology
2W1XX Aircraft Armament Systems  Aircraft Armament Systems Technology
2W2XX Nuclear Weapons  Munitions Systems Technology
3D0X1 Knowledge Operations Management  Information Management
3D0X2 Cyber Systems Operations  Information Systems Technology
3D0X3 Cyber Surety  Information Systems Technology
3D0X4 Computer Systems Programming  Computer Science Technology
3D1X1 Client Systems  Information Systems Technology
3D1X2 Cyber Transport  Electronic Systems Technology
3D1X3 RF Transmission Systems  Electronic Systems Technology
3D1X4 Spectrum Operations Information Systems Technology
3D1X5 Radar  Electronic Systems Technology
3D1X6 Airfield Systems  Electronic Systems Technology
3D1X7 Cable & Antenna Systems  Electronic Systems Technology
3E0X1 Electrical Systems  Mechanical & Electrical Technology
3E0X2 Electrical Power Production  Mechanical & Electrical Technology
3E1XX Heating, Ventilation, AC, Refrigeration  Mechanical & Electrical Technology
3E2XX Pavement and Construction Equipment  Construction Technology
3E3XX Structural  Construction Technology
3E4X1 Water and Fuel Systems Maintenance  Mechanical & Electrical Technology
3E4X3 Pest Management  Entomology
3E5XX Engineering  Construction Technology
3E6XX Operations Management  Maintenance Production Management
3E7XX Fire Protection  Fire Science
3E8XX Explosive Ordnance Disposal  Explosive Ordnance Disposal
3E9XX Emergency Management  Emergency Management
3H0X1 Historian  Aerospace Historian
3M0XX Services  Hospitality & Fitness Management
3N0XX Public Affairs  Mass Communications
3N1XX Regional Band  Music
3N2XX Premier Band  Music
3P0XX Security Forces  Criminal Justice
3S0XX Personnel  Human Resource Management
3S1XX Equal Opportunity  Human Services
3S2XX Education and Training  Education & Training Management
3S3XX Manpower  Management Engineering Technology
4A0XX Health Services Management  Health Care Management
4A1XX Medical Material  Logistics
4A2XX Biomedical Equipment  Biomedical Equipment Technology
4B0XX Bioenvironmental Engineering  Bioenvironmental Engineering Technology
4C0XX Mental Health Service  Mental Health Services
4D0XX Diet Therapy  Dietetics & Nutrition
4E0XX Public Health  Public Health Technology
4H0XX Cardiopulmonary Laboratory  Cardiopulmonary Laboratory Technology
4J0XX Physical Medicine  Physical Therapist Assistant
4M0XX Aerospace and Operational Physiology  Aerospace Physiology Technology
4N0XX Aerospace Medical Service  Practical Nursing Technology
4N1XX Surgical Service Surgical Services Technology
4P0XX Pharmacy  Pharmacy Technology
4R0X1 Diagnostic Imaging  Diagnostic Imaging Technology
4R0X1A  Nuclear Medicine Technology
4R0X1B  Diagnostic Medical Sonography
4R0X1C  Diagnostic Imaging Technology
4T0X1 Medical Laboratory  Medical Laboratory Technology
4T0X2  Histologic Technology
4V0XX Ophthalmic  Ophthalmic Technician
4Y0X1 Dental Assistant  Dental Assisting
4Y0X2  Dental Laboratory Technology
5J0XX Paralegal  Paralegal
5R0XX Chaplain Assistant  Human Services
6C0XX Contracting  Contracts Management
6F0XX Financial Management and Comptroller  Financial Management
7S0XX Special Investigations  Criminal Justice
8A2XX Enlisted Aide  Hospitality & Fitness Management
8B0XX Military Training Instructor  Education & Training Management
8B1XX Military Training Leader  Education & Training Management
8C0XX Airmen/Family Readiness Center  Human Services
8D0XX Strategic Debriefer  Intelligence Studies & Technology
8F0XX First Sergeant  Human Resource Management
8M0XX Postal  Information Management
8P1XX Defense Attaché  Information Management
8R0XX Enlisted Accessions Recruiter  Human Resource Management
9L0XX Interpreter/Translator  Intelligence Studies & Technology
9S1XX Scientific Applications Specialist  Scientific Analysis Technology

Your AFSC determines what CCAF degree you are enrolled in, you are not able to choose another degree type. If you retrain into another job or an additional duty such some of the 7xxxx / 8xxxx / 9xxxx series, you can get that degree in addition to the degree from your career field. For example if you start as a Personnelist, you can get a CCAF in Human Resource Management, then if you do a special duty as a postal worker, you can get one in Information Management as well.

There is some debate over the usefulness of a CCAF degree once you’re out of the Air Force. Some people think it isn’t valuable and wouldn’t help you get a job, but some people that have gotten out believe it has helped them secure a job they wouldn’t have otherwise received.

My personal opinion is that it certainly isn’t going to hurt, and if you get out of the AF after your first enlistment with four to six years of experience in a trade, along with at least an associate’s degree in that field, it’s going to set you up better than a lot of people in the hunt for work. But definitely seek out more advanced education as well if that is something you’re interested in.

If you register for a class with TA, then drop out and get a “Withdraw” grade, or fail the class with an F for undergraduate work or a D for graduate work, you will have to reimburse the government for your TA, and they can take it directly from your pay, so make sure you complete your classes and get good grades if you’re going to sign up!
AU/ABC Program

The AU/ABC program is a great way to obtain a bachelor’s degree quickly. The program allows you to take a completed CCAF degree (easy to knock out with a few CLEPs or classes) then transfer all of those credits to certain schools and certain degree plans to start as a Junior. There is a database on the Air Force Portal (intranet) that will provide a list of schools and degrees that will work with your CCAF. This is by far the fastest way to complete a bachelor’s degree, as you can skip roughly half of the requirements since obtaining the CCAF is quick and easy. The drawback is that the schools and degrees that will take your credits are limited, so if you want a particular school that doesn’t support the program or a particular degree that doesn’t match with your CCAF, you’ll have to start mostly from scratch on your bachelor’s. Most schools will take the same CLEPs you used for your CCAF though, and perhaps some of your CCAF credits as well.

GI Bill

The GI Bill is an extremely valuable benefit of military service, and is the reason a lot of people join in the first place. The GI Bill is provided by the Veterans Affairs office, not the AF directly.  There are two options for the GI Bill, the Montgomery GI Bill, and the Post 9/11 GI Bill. Everyone joining today will receive the Post 9/11 GI Bill automatically when enlisting. The Montgomery GI Bill is optional, and requires that you pay $100 per month for the first year of your service in order to receive it. You have to make this decision in BMT, and if you choose not to buy into it at BMT, you will not have a chance to do it later.

For a full comparison between the GI Bills, use this table on the VA web site.

I would recommend taking the Montgomery GI Bill option in BMT, because it’s your only chance to do so. If you end up using the Post 9/11 GI Bill instead, you are refunded the $1,200 you paid into the Montgomery GI Bill when you’ve used all of your Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits. However, the Post 9/11 GI Bill will probably be the better option for most people, as you get BAH as a staff sergeant while you’re in school, and it can also be transferred to your children or spouse.


CLEP and DANTES exams are how you “test out of” college courses. If you just graduated high school, you can probably pass some of the math or english exams without much study, and then you don’t have to take English 101 at the college level for example. This is a quick and easy way to knock out the requirements for your CCAF, since you should be able to meet all the requirements from CLEPs and DANTES exams alone.

These tests are free for military members (normally $80 – $130 each), for the first try. If you fail it and try to take it again in the future, you’ll have to pay to retake it.

I recommend taking as many CLEPs as you can. I wish I had taken more of them, so I wouldn’t have had to take as many college classes. The requirements to pass aren’t that high, so if you paid attention in high school or spend a little time studying, you shouldn’t have a problem getting some easy college credit.

Pell Grants

Pell grants are a great benefit that isn’t tied directly to military service, but since your income as a new enlisted member will be low on paper (since BAH isn’t included as income or you live in the dorms for free), you will likely qualify for a healthy grant from the government for your education. For the 2015 – 2016 school year, you could qualify for up to $5,775 in free money to use for school, books, supplies, whatever. They actually just send you a check if you wish, so you don’t even have to use it for school costs if you don’t want to. Though if you use it for something else, you’re supposed to claim it as income on your taxes.

So if you decide to sign up for college classes and use your tuition assistance benefit, make sure to apply for Pell grants as well! Even if you don’t qualify for the full $5,775, a couple thousand dollars will get you a couple extra college classes, or help you with other expenses.


Scholarships are a broad category that I won’t go super in-depth on here, but make sure you search for scholarships to help with your school costs. There are lots of websites that will help you in your search, and also keep an eye out in your email inbox, the Top 3 (top three enlisted ranks) and other enlisted organizations will frequently offer scholarships of a few hundred dollars at your local base every quarter or semester. Usually the requirement to enter is a relatively short essay. Make sure you submit an application, a lot of people won’t bother because of the minor inconvenience of writing an essay, so you probably won’t have as much competition as you expect.

Choosing a School

The first step in choosing a school is to know your end goal in obtaining a degree. Do you plan to attempt to commission as an officer in a few years? Do you want to get out and get a civilian job in a related or unrelated field? Do you want to go to medical school or law school? Do you want to teach at a university level?

If your only goal is to commission, where you get your degree from isn’t that important, as long as its from an accredited school. Your GPA is important, and if you get a STEM degree, you will be more desirable as well.

If you plan to get out after 20 years and use your degree, I don’t personally believe where you get your degree from matters that much either. At that point your 20 years of military experience in one or more trades is going to be more important than a degree you got 15 years ago and is now out of date.

If you’re planning to be a doctor or lawyer or university professor, it probably matters a lot more where you get your degree from. The name recognition alone of a popular school may mean a big difference in your opportunities later in life.

These are all very general statements, so do your own research and find a school that matches what you want to do, as well as matches your budget, interests, etc.

Schools on Base

Most bases will have one or more schools on base that offer a selection of classes that you can attend in-person. Some schools will have you take certain classes online, while others will be offered on base. The list of schools offered at bases is very long, but some that I’ve seen before are Embry Riddle University, University of Maryland University College, University of Oklahoma, and many more.

The benefit of schools offering classes on base is that they are close to where you are working, and likely offer night classes that you can attend after work, depending on your schedule. They are used to working with the military and should be flexible with your work needs.

Schools off Base

Schools off base will obviously depend on your location. If you’re stationed out in the middle of nowhere, the off base choices will be limited. Other bases may have half a dozen different schools within driving distance.

Attending classes off base will depend a lot on your work schedule. If you are working in the Finance office and work 0800 to 1600, Monday through Friday, then you would be able to attend night classes pretty reliably. However if you work on the flightline or work in an operations center on a rotating schedule between day and nights, you’ll never be able to attend in-person classes on a reliable basis. Which brings us to…

Online classes

Online classes are going to be the most realistic for most military members. Some people hate online classes and struggle to make it through them, but I happen to prefer them greatly over in-person classes.

Most state universities offer online classes these days, as well as a host of online-only for-profit or non-profit schools.

Listings like the US News listing for Best Online Schools and Best Online Schools for Veterans will help you narrow down your choices.

For a personal angle, I graduated from AMU, it’s a regionally accredited for-profit school that is listed at #27 on US News’ Best Online Schools list. They have a lot of military-oriented degrees such as intel, space studies, computer security, homeland security, military history, etc. They are very easy to work with as far as your workload affecting your ability to finish a class, going on deployments, etc.

Other popular choices are UMUC, Embry Riddle, Western Governor’s University, Penn State World Campus, etc.


In order to use tuition assistance, the school must be accredited and meet some other requirements as well. Most schools you find in Google searches or “best of” lists won’t have a problem meeting any of these requirements.

There are two types of accreditation, regional and national. One is not necessarily better than the other, according to the Department of Education, but regional accreditation is accepted at more schools as transfer credit. For example if you attend a nationally accredited school, other nationally accredited school may accept your previous classes as credit, but regionally accredited schools will not accept transfer credit from nationally accredited schools. Nationally accredited schools will accept transfer credits from regionally accredited schools however, so the regional credits are more flexible. Also if you want to teach at a regionally accredited school in the future, you’ll need a regionally accredited degree.

Other Resources

If you’re close to getting out of the military or are already out, Syracuse University has a great program called the Veterans Career Transition Program that will let you take a variety of classes and certifications to set yourself up for employment after the military.

Safari Books Online is an online library with free access for Air Force members, which gives you access to a lot of technical training books for free.

Khan Academy – Great for studying up on any kind of math, whether for a CLEP or taking the AFOQT if you are trying to commission, etc.

JourneyEd – Cheap software for students.

Microsoft Home Use Program – Get the latest version of MS Office for $9.95. Available to all AF members whether you are in school or not.