How I Got My College Degree for Free

The Army National Guard Paid for It

Between the Army National Guard’s Federal tuition assistance, State tuition assistance, and GI Bill, Sergeant First Class (SFC) Ryan West earned his bachelor’s degree for free.

He estimates that between the special military rates offered by the schools he attended and the Guard’s education benefits, he has saved $30,000 to $40,000 in tuition and fees.

Without the Guard picking up the tab, SFC West’s other options to pay for school were using his GI Bill from his previous active duty service in the Army or student loans.

SFC Ryan West, a Medical Readiness Non-Commissioned Officer with the South Carolina Army National Guard.

SFC Ryan West, a Medical Readiness Non-Commissioned Officer with the South Carolina Army National Guard.

“I was raised in a single-parent home, there just wasn’t money for college,” he explains.

SFC West, a Medical Readiness Non-Commissioned Officer with the South Carolina Army National Guard, has had a few stops and starts on his way to earning that degree. He had started college before joining the Army in 1998, but, “It didn’t work out for me. The money wasn’t there, plus I wasn’t that disciplined.”

So, he joined the military, something he had wanted to do since he was a child.

“I’m from a small town, Hopkins, South Carolina, so I wanted to get out and see the world, see new places, and meet new people,” says SFC West. “And, of course, defend my country. There’s nothing like it. You get a great reward from serving.”

After leaving active duty in 2002, SFC West wanted to continue his service, so he joined the Guard because he liked the idea of serving part-time, especially so he could go back to school.

But then he deployed to Iraq, which marked a complete turnaround in how he looked at his career.

“Prior to that, I was just a traditional Guardsman, just going through the motions, coming to drill. I didn’t really have aspirations of going higher in the ranks or being better than what I was.”

Experiencing what he did while deployed in Iraq as a 68W Healthcare Specialist (combat medic) – the inhumanity of war and even meeting new people from different places, made him realize he could reach higher.

It was after coming home that SFC West realized all of the Guard benefits he could use to complete his degree.

“You get funds from three different sources, which is great,” SFC West says. “You don’t get that in the Reserves, and you don’t get that in the regular Army.”

The Guard offers Federal tuition assistance. Plus, each State or Territory offers State tuition assistance, but note that each State or Territory has its own rules and policies. Finally, the GI Bill can pick up the tab for books, fees, or really anything. This money is a monthly expense allowance paid directly to the student, not the school.

 

SFC West and his family at his college graduation.

Armed with all of these financial resources and a renewed sense of purpose, SFC West re-started his studies at Limestone College in South Carolina, but then decided to take a full-time job with the Guard. As 2014 came into view, he decided to go back to school “to finish this thing before I retire,” finally earning his bachelor’s in organizational leadership from the University of South Carolina.

And, he might not be done using up all those education benefits. He still has some of his post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to transfer to his children, and he can still use the Guard’s tuition assistance to earn a master’s degree he’s thinking about getting.

His advice for anyone joining the Guard is: “Let the Guard get the most out of you, and you get the most out of the Guard.”

And that means taking advantage of all the opportunities it offers, including making the most of the education benefits.

“That paycheck means nothing if you stay five or six years and you don’t have a degree – a free degree,” he says.

So if you’re looking for a way to pay for college, or even vocational school, the Guard offers those benefits and more, like training in careers ranging from medicine and engineering to field artillery and logistics. You can explore all of the Guard’s career fields on our job board.

And, for personalized advice, including specifics on your State’s education benefits because the information varies from State to State, contact your local recruiter.

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Army National Guard Offers a Way to Pay Federal Student Loans

One of the Army National Guard’s best selling points is its ability to help pay for its Soldiers’ educations.

There are many paths to earning a degree without incurring a ton of debt or any debt at all, like the Guard’s Federal and State tuition assistance programs, but one benefit the Guard offers – the Student Loan Repayment Program – can pay down balances on Federal student loans a Soldier already has.

CPT Peter Brookes, the Enlisted Incentives Program Manager with the Army National Guard, explains: “The gist of it is that we pay 15% or $500 a year of the overall Federal student loans you have when you join the Guard, up to $50,000, inclusive of interest for a 6 year commitment.”

The most important caveat for the program, says CPT Brookes, is that the money goes to the lending institution – not the Soldier. Also, it’s not a one-time check to the lender. For example, for a Guard member who has $50,000 in Federal student loans, the Guard would pay 15% per each individual loan of that balance, up to $7,500 per year.

The Student Loan Repayment Program (SLRP) applies to only Federal loans. State loans and private loans do not qualify.

There are also requirements associated with a Soldier’s status within the Guard. Different standards apply for new Soldiers coming in with no prior service, Soldiers who have prior military service, and those who are already serving in the Guard.

CPT Brookes says for anyone new coming into the Guard, there are three basic eligibility requirements for SLRP – Soldiers must be high school graduates who are moving into a vacant position in the Guard and have a minimum Armed Forces Qualifying Test score of 50 and established Federal student loan debt.

As of this writing, CPT Brookes says new Soldiers can pick one of three incentives between SLRP, the Montgomery GI Bill Kicker, which is $350 a month that goes to a Soldier who’s enrolled in college, for up to 36 months, or a Non-Prior Service Enlistment Bonus for $7,500.

Some of those incentives can be combined with the Guard’s education benefits, which CPT Brookes describes as “unparalleled.”

“When you consider that for the vast majority of us, [Guard service] is a part-time job, it’s pretty phenomenal, he says. “I can’t even think of a civilian equivalent out there for education benefits for a part-time job.”

Not only can Soldiers take advantage of potentially earning free degrees through State Tuition Assistance Programs (programs vary by State), “you can still go and get your [Montgomery GI Bill] Kicker as well,” says CPT Brookes. “So basically you’re getting paid to go to college.”

NationalGuard.com outlines all of the Guard’s benefits, but CPT Brookes says recruiters are the best source for information on benefits, incentives, or bonuses that apply to each State.

Your local recruiter can also help you decide on the job you’ll train to do in the Guard, called your Military Occupational Specialty (MOS). For more information on Guard careers, check out our job board, where you can research more than 150 options in fields ranging from administration, to infantry, engineering, military intelligence, and more.

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State Spotlight: South Carolina

Guard Staff Sergeant Saves Lives as a Soldier and a Civilian

SSG Jessica Thibeau, with the South Carolina Army National Guard’s 59th Aviation Troop Command, observes from a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter during efforts to fight South Carolina wildfires in November 2016. Photo by Army SSG Roberto Di Giovine.

CHARLESTON, S.C. – Soldiers join the military for many reasons, including family tradition, stories they’ve seen in the media, or to make their childhood dreams come true.

For South Carolina Army National Guard Staff Sgt. (SSG) Jessica Thibeau, exposure to the military came from all over – a family filled with combat veterans, a community full of Vietnam veterans, and a television show.

“No laughing, but when I was 4 years old I loved a show called ‘Emergency.’ It was based on the first paramedics in the U.S. out in Los Angeles County, California,” said SSG Thibeau.

“That was in 1974,” she added. “There were not any female firefighters back then. My mom, however, never told me that. She always told me I could be whatever I wanted. I actually got a ton of Tonka fire trucks and ambulances that year for Christmas because that is all I wanted. Becoming a combat medic was just a natural progression.”

After having served on active duty and 20 years as a civilian paramedic, in 2005, SSG Thibeau decided to join the Army National Guard, and offer her combined civilian-military experience in trauma response and emergency/critical care to the Guard, which has a dual mission of serving the Nation and responding to State emergencies like floods and fires.

Initially, SSG Thibeau became a combat medic (68W Healthcare Specialist) with the Maine Army National Guard, 133rd Engineer Battalion. Next, she joined a Medevac unit with Charlie Company, 1st General Support Aviation Battalion, 126th Aviation Regiment, also in Maine. She later transferred to the South Carolina Army National Guard as a critical care flight paramedic with the 59th Aviation Troop Command.

Throughout her 18 years of military service, SSG Thibeau has saved numerous lives, including two while serving on the South Carolina Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team. 

SSG Thibeau also flew numerous fire containment missions during the Pinnacle Mountain wildfires in Northwestern South Carolina in November 2016, and she has saved countless lives as a paramedic. As a civilian and a Soldier, she exemplifies positivity in her community and serves with dedication and proficiency in the military.

“I do love walking in on someone’s absolute worst day and making it a little, if not a lot, better,” SSG Thibeau said. “This job gives you a positive outlet to get that adrenaline rush while having a positive impact on others.”

“Whether it is saving their home, their loved one having a heart attack, or bringing another Soldier home from combat to their family, there is no greater feeling in the world to me than knowing you made a difference.”

So if you’d like to make a difference in your community, consider joining the Army National Guard, which offers more than 150 careers. Check out our job board to search opportunities in fields like medicine, administration, or infantry. Your part-time service comes with many benefits like money for college or vocational school and low-cost health and life insurance. Contact your local recruiter to learn more.

From an original story by Army SSG Roberto Di Giovine, 59th Aviation Troop Command, which originally appeared in the news section of NationalGuard.mil in April 2017.

 

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