This series of articles focuses on the lessons I learned that will help you get the very most from your military and veteran education benefits.

Most service members and veterans are unaware that using their education benefits wisely can unlock unlimited education and career opportunities.

In fact, you can use your benefits to cover the cost of multiple degrees or have enough GI Bill benefit left to transfer to a spouse or child. I know this because I used a combination of active-duty, veteran and civilian education programs to take me from High School graduate to an MBA. And, I did it using the old Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB), which was nowhere near as good a program as the current “Forever GI Bill.”

So, how did I go from zero to master’s degree using seemingly limited benefits? It was relatively simply once I learned how to leverage programs like CLEP and DSST Exams, ACE Credits, Tuition Assistance (TA), Federal Student Aid, and of course the GI Bill.

Using CLEPS or ACE credits may not work for everyone, but there are other low-cost ways to earn your lower level college credit. You may end up using some Tuition Assistance and other education grants, but you can still avoid most out of pocket expenses. We can cover this in a later article.

Here’s how it worked for me:

My first step was to “test out” of my general education lower level credit requirements by taking five of the Basic CLEP exams. These College-Level Examination Program  exams can be taken at no cost, through the Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support (DANTES) program (be sure to ask your ESO for assistance).

The basic CLEP exams can be worth up to 3 credits each for your Social Science and History, Humanities, English/Literature (w/ Composition), Math, and Natural Sciences requirements.  Best yet, you don’t have to take these exams cold, you can get CLEP study guides either through your ESO or by purchasing them directly from the CLEP website.

After taking the exams and ensuring my scores were recorded, I requested a copy of my military experience and training transcript.  The transcript captured the credits for my CLEP exams and the American Council on Education (ACE) recommended credits for my military experience and training.

Between the exams and my ACE credits, I had more than 60 semester credits on the books; more than enough for an Associate’s degree – or so I thought.  This was where I learned that not all schools give you all your earned or recommended college credit, even if it was earned the old-fashioned way, at a brick and mortar college. I will save that lesson for another article.

After finding a school that would accept my CLEP Exams and ACE credits, I was awarded an Associate of Science degree (without taking a single college course and at a cost of about $500 out of pocket for admissions and administrative fees). This first step got me motivated to go after my Bachelor’s degree. It is important to point out that so far I had not used any of my TA or GI Bill.

Next Step: Bachelor’s Degree

I began the next step by finding a regionally accredited school that offered a “degree completion” program. The school I chose didn’t accept my Associate’s degree at face value, however, they used the transcript to determine how many credits they would allow me to apply to my degree program.

Another lesson learned – Having an Associate’s degree does not normally mean you start out as a junior, you will often have to take some lower level credits to fill gaps or cover credits that were not matriculated. Colleges and Universities seldom accept all your previously earned college credits; it is not unusual for them require retaking some courses, don’t let this slow you down.

Fortunately, my new college accepted most of the credits and allowed me to use an additional 21 ACE credits toward completing my degree.  In addition, the college allowed adult learning students to “fill in” the lower level credit “gaps.” at other schools and by taking DANTE (DSST) Exams for specific course requirements like “Public Speaking.” I used the military TA program to cover the courses used to fill the gaps, while I used my GI Bill to pay for the Bachelor’s degree program. I also tapped in to Federal Student Aid programs like Pell Grants to help pay for incidentals and books.

By the time I had completed my Bachelor of Science degree I had used only 16 months of GI Bill benefits. When it was all said and done I had 20 months of GI Bill benefits remaining.

This left me with enough remaining benefit to go on to pursue my Master’s degree. If I had been eligible for GI Bill transferability, I could have chosen to transfer that 20 months of GI Bill benefits to help pay for my kid’s education.

Lesson Learned: Properly leveraging your education benefits can help you earn your Bachelor’s degree with enough left over to fund your graduate degree or fund your dependent’s education.

In future articles, I will share my Lessons Learned while pursuing my college degree, certification, and more…

These lessons learned come from my years as a Coast Guard Career Development Advisor, working directly with Education Services Officers, and while using education benefits while on active-duty and as a veteran.

LESSONS LEARNED SERIES:

RELATED: