Air Force Education BenefitsUpdated: December 23, 2022
The United States Air Force does not draft its airmen. Instead, it fills its ranks with motivated volunteers. As an incentive for initial and continued service, the Air Force offers some outstanding benefits, especially in education. We’ll use this article to outline these Air Force education benefits.
Specifically, we’ll discuss the following:
- An Overview of Air Force Education
- VA Education Programs Open to the Air Force
- Air Force Voluntary Education Programs
- Bachelor’s Degree Commissioning Programs
- Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT)
- Final Thoughts
An Overview of Air Force Education Benefits
According to the Air Force, the service strives for excellence in all we do. Accordingly, the Air Force provides airmen an absolute wealth of opportunities to continue their education. However, not all programs will apply to all service members. For example, an enlisted airmen interested in a technical field may want to pursue a formal certification program in that field. On the other hand, some airmen may want to pursue a bachelor’s degree to provide job opportunities after their service.
As a result of this tremendous diversity, we’ve divided our discussion of education benefits into a few categories. First, we’ll provide an overview of VA education programs available to all airmen. Next, we’ll outline some voluntary education opportunities that airmen can pursue in their free time during their service. We’ll conclude with a review of education benefits related to careers as Air Force officers.
VA Education Programs Open to the Air Force
As mentioned above, eligible airmen can receive education benefits through the VA. While these are not Air Force education benefits, per se, the fact that airmen can – and do – use them means they’re worth explaining here.
Post-9/11 GI Bill
This VA education benefit constitutes the gold standard of post-service education benefits. While airmen can use their GI Bill benefits during service, most use them following separation from the military.
While full eligibility percentages typically require three years of active duty service, you may be eligible for a reduced benefit percentage if you’ve served on active duty for at least 90 days after Sept. 10th, 2001.
Assuming 100% eligibility, airmen can receive 36 months of the following benefits through the Post-9/11 GI Bill:
- Tuition and fees (paid up to the in-state, public school maximum)
- Monthly housing allowance
- Book stipend up to $1,000 per year
Yellow Ribbon Program
This program serves as a bridge financing mechanism for airmen using their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to attend a more expensive, private university. For these schools, the standard GI Bill payments do not cover the full tuition. To fix this gap, the VA created the Yellow Ribbon program.
Schools with tuitions greater than the GI Bill maximum can enroll as Yellow Ribbon participants. Air Force veterans with 100% GI Bill eligibility can apply for a Yellow Ribbon slot at these schools. And, as Yellow Ribbon participants, the schools offer to pay a set amount, above and beyond the GI Bill contribution, and the VA matches this contribution, meaning airmen need to pay less – or nothing – out of pocket to attend these schools.
Air Force Voluntary Education Programs
Next, the Air Force offers voluntary education programs. These benefits include the options available to airmen to pursue education in their free time. In other words, the benefits in this category must be completed concurrent with primary military assignments.
Prior to using most of these programs, airmen should conduct an education counseling via the Air Force Virtual Education Center (AFVEC). These counselors will help develop a concrete academic plan, helping to ensure that all college credits earned via these programs work towards a degree.
Community College of the Air Force
When people enlist in the Air Force, they are automatically enrolled in the Community College of the Air Force, an accredited institution. This allows these new airmen to immediately start earning credits towards an associate degree as soon they begin basic training.
Through both on-duty training and voluntary off-duty classwork, airmen work towards their associate degrees through this school. Depending on career area, airmen can pursue a degree in applied science focused in one of the five areas:
- Aircraft and missile maintenance
- Electronics and telecommunications
- Allied health
- Logistics and resources
- Public and support services
CLEP and DANTES Testing
These two types of tests, which the Air Force will pay for, allow airmen to take an exam in lieu of a college course. In other words, if you know or are willing to study for a particular subject (e.g. college algebra, statistics, world history, etc.), you can take these exams. If you pass, you can then apply the passing grade as a credit towards your degree. This has the benefits of A) speeding up your degree journey, and B) letting your other education benefits go even further.
Tuition Assistance (TA)
Each branch of service offers its own version of TA, and the Air Force allows eligible airmen to use the program to pursue college degrees in their free time. Specifically, after completing the requisite administrative requirements for the program, the Air Force will pay a certain amount of tuition every year.
For motivated airmen, combining Community College of the Air Force credits, CLEP and DANTES testing, and college classes via TA can absolutely result in a college degree over the course of an enlistment. While this can be challenging in certain fields and with multiple deployments, it’s not uncommon for an airman to enlist with no college experience, use these benefits, and complete his or her service with a bachelor’s degree.
Bachelor’s Degree Commissioning Programs
The education benefits in this section pertain to two categories of people: 1) civilians seeking to commission as Air Force officers, and 2) enlisted airmen seeking a college degree and commission to become an officer.
Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC)
Qualified high school students apply for a scholarship and, if accepted, spend four years at university training in its AFROTC program. From an education perspective, this scholarship means that AFROTC students attend university for free. However, by accepting this benefit, these students commit to a minimum of four years of service following graduation. Upon completing their bachelor’s degrees, AFROTC students commission as Air Force officers.
United States Air Force Academy (USAFA)
United States Air Force Academy serves as the official service academy for commissioning Air Force officers. Similar to AFROTC, students who are accepted and receive an appointment to USAFA spend four years at the institution, completing both military training and their bachelor’s degrees. Upon graduation, they commission into the Air Force. However, USAFA mandates five – not four – years of mandatory service following graduation in return for this education.
The Air Force Technical Degree Sponsorship Program (TDSP)
The Air Force designed this program for college students studying engineering or meteorology. Students studying either of these subjects who are within 24 months of graduation can apply to this program to receive a monthly stipend and housing allowance. Upon graduating, these students commission as Air Force officers and begin working towards careers tailored around their specific technical degrees.
The Airman Scholarship and Commissioning Program (ASCP)
This program provides active duty, enlisted airmen a path to receive their bachelor’s degrees and commission as Air Force officers. If accepted in the program, airmen temporarily separate from the Air Force to join an AFROTC unit. As AFROTC students, these individuals attend class full-time. Upon completion of their bachelor’s degrees, students commission as Air Force officers and can pursue a variety of career paths within the service.
Scholarships for Outstanding Airmen to ROTC (SOAR)
SOAR provides the same opportunities as ASCP for enlisted airmen to receive bachelor’s degrees and commission as Air Force officers. The primary difference between the two programs is recommendation level, as SOAR requires a wing commander’s recommendation.
The LEAD Program
LEAD offers exceptional airmen an opportunity to attend USAFA. Once accepted, airmen will either enter USAFA directly or spend a year at its prep school first. Upon completion of their bachelor’s degrees at USAFA, they will commission as Air Force officers.
Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT)
AFIT, located on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, provides Air Force officers the ability to pursue graduate degrees full-time. Of note, AFIT’s Air Force Graduate School for Engineering and Management is one of the nation’s top engineering schools. Air Force officers attend as full-time students, and they can earn master’s degrees or doctorates in one of over 20 specialties.
Additionally, the Air Force recognizes that AFIT does not offer specialties for all officers. As a result, AFIT offers a Civilian Institution Program that allows officers to pursue degree fields not available at AFIT at the below civilian institutions:
- Research centers
- Industrial organizations
Depending on your unique situation and goals, the Air Force likely has an education benefit program for you. However, as with everything in the Air Force, you will not be given anything. All of these benefits still require a tremendous amount of work to succeed. But, if you possess this drive to further your education, the Air Force has plenty of options to help you on your journey.
Maurice “Chipp” Naylon spent nine years as an infantry officer in the Marine Corps. He is currently a licensed CPA specializing in real estate development and accounting.