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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.
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.
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).
|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|
|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|
|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|
|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|
|4V0XX Ophthalmic||Ophthalmic Technician|
|4Y0X1 Dental Assistant||Dental Assisting|
|4Y0X2||Dental Laboratory Technology|
|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!
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.
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 / DANTES Exams
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.