Federal Educational Assistance Programs Available to Service Members

Program Features and Recommendations for Improved Delivery

by Peter Buryk, Thomas E. Trail, Gabriella C. Gonzalez, Laura L. Miller, Esther M. Friedman


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Research Questions

  1. What educational benefits do civilian employers offer and why?
  2. What educational assistance programs are available to service members, and what are their eligibility requirements, features, and desired outcomes?
  3. To what degree do these programs complement and/or overlap one another?
  4. How do individuals use these programs, and how can they be helped to use the system more efficiently?
  5. What would be the key measures and appropriate benchmarks for an effective evaluation of these programs?

The Department of Defense (DoD), the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Department of Education administer a variety of programs that provide educational assistance to military service members. These programs range from examinations that provide college credit for knowledge and experience gained in the military to various kinds of tuition assistance and student aid. The Department of Defense (DoD) Office of Military and Community and Family Policy asked RAND to review major, federal-level military educational assistance programs; develop a holistic system overview; identify program outcomes that program managers either currently measure or should be measuring; consider benchmarks of success to compare these programs against; and recommend ways to improve how educational benefits for military personnel are managed and used, thereby potentially improving cost efficiencies of programs. The authors reviewed publicly available program information and discussed specific characteristics with program managers, as well as reviewed the academic literature on both civilian and military education benefit programs to identify common characteristics, performance measures, and outcome measures. The research did not, however, extend to examining outcomes; the emphasis was on establishing a framework and baselines for further exploration. Among other observations, the authors did note significant overlap among programs and that individuals did not always pursue the most efficient pathways through the system for long-term benefit.

Key Findings

Civilian Educational Assistance Programs Are Prevalent and a Large Investment in the United States

  • Few companies, however, investigate the impacts of such programs.

Limited Evidence Exists on the Impact of Military Educational Assistance Programs

  • The desired impacts of Department of Defense (DoD) educational assistance programs include improved recruitment, readiness, and retention and successful transition to civilian life.
  • Some research suggests that the availability of military educational assistance attracts higher-quality recruits.
  • Other research suggests that, while this is so, assistance recipients may leave service earlier than others.
  • It is unclear whether the net result is positive or negative.

Federal Educational Assistance Programs Offer Service Members Multiple Pathways to Obtaining College Degrees

  • Other potential outcomes include additional military training and occupational licenses and certificates.
  • College credit can be obtained by taking standardized tests, utilizing programs that recommend college credit for military experience, and completing college courses.
  • Ideally, educational assistance enhances the professional advancement of program participants.

Many of the Programs Overlap, Especially for Active-Duty Personnel

  • Eligibility for DoD and Department of Veterans Affairs benefits is frequently linked to active duty status, resulting in fluctuating options for reserve component members.
  • Not all combinations of assistance are helpful in the long run; for instance, some might tap into GI Bill benefits at a time when other funding sources are available, reducing the only funding that will still be available postservice.
  • Service members must navigate disparate sources to gather information on the education benefits available to them at various times during their military careers.


  • Programs already collect and analyze data on outputs but need to do more to track and assess intended goals and outcomes (e.g., enrollment rates, persistence rates, or graduation rates).
  • Guide service members who are students to use Department of Defense (DoD) programs that generate transferrable academic credit through testing and conversion of work experience whenever possible to reduce the costs of DoD and Department of Veterans Affairs programs that provide direct funding for education. These programs are less expensive than the cost of tuition and fees for equivalent credits.
  • Create an integrated online federal educational assistance system to help service members design a time-efficient education plan that would make the best use of the benefits for which they qualify. An integrated system could also help reduce overall costs by providing program managers the tools they need to identify possibly redundant or inefficient program spending across the programs and departments.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction, Study Scope, and Methods

  • Chapter Two

    Previous Research on Civilian and Military Educational Assistance

  • Chapter Three

    Description of Programs' Design Features

  • Chapter Four

    Program Eligibility and Usage

  • Chapter Five

    Considerations for an Evaluation of Federal Education Assistance Programs for Service Members

  • Chapter Six

    Summary of Findings and Recommendations

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy and conducted within the Forces and Resources Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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