For military personnel on active duty, Tuition Assistance (TA) can be an invaluable resource for pursuing higher education for career advancement, a leg up on a post-service degree, or simply as an outlet for personal growth. In many cases, TA covers the full cost of educational courses, but there are certain circumstances where a portion of tuition is left for the service member to cover. Fortunately, the Department of Veterans Affairs Top-up program offers an alternative to out-of-pocket tuition payments for some service members.
Signed into law in 2000, the Tuition Assistance Top-up program was created for active duty service members to use a portion of his or her GI Bill benefits to pay tuition above and beyond what TA will cover. The program is available only to active-duty service members using the Post-9/11 GI Bill and the Active Duty Montgomery GI Bill, and not Selected Reserve MGIB. For Post-9/11 users, benefits are drawn in the same way they would be for regular students, with each month of full-time benefits exhausting one month of benefits, and with half- and part-time students drawing benefits at a lower rate. For active duty MGIB users, benefits are drawn on a dollar-for-dollar basis, with the total cost paid by the VA deducted from total remaining MGIB benefits. Tuition Top-up benefits can be requested retroactively for courses already taken, but claims must be filed within one year.
The Top-up program is a good match only for certain types of military members. For instance, since the exact amount of tuition covered by TA can vary by service and command, in some case using the Top-up program might result in a large amount of benefits being used for relatively small dollar value. Post-9/11 users, in particular, should take careful note that since the amount of money paid by the VA is unrelated to the number of benefit months charged, a comparatively large amount of benefits could be used to pay a small tuition balance. It is important for every service member to weigh the pros and cons of using benefits rather than paying tuition shortfalls out of pocket or deferring a course for another time.
While the Top-up program is likely to fit only a small number of service members, in some cases, it can be a valuable way to achieve educational goals without suffering financial hardship. Long-serving, career-focused members in commands with partial TA programs who are unlikely to use GI Bill benefits after active duty are ideal candidates for the program. On the other hand, junior military members under the Post-9/11 GI Bill who intend to pursue full-time education after separation are less likely to get the full value of their benefits, and should probably apply for the Top-up program only in cases of extreme financial hardship or educational need.
If the Top-up program seems right for you, be sure to check in with the VA to ensure you are enrolled in the proper GI Bill program, and with your command’s TA point of contact. In many cases, an educational POC may be able to help determine if the Top-up program fits your financial and educational goals. Once your command approves your TA request, complete and submit VA Form 22-1990 or apply online (https://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill/apply.asp). There is no need to check in with the VA to determine course eligibility, because the VA automatically approves TA courses for the Top-up program.