Mission Tuition: using a military stint to make money for college

Anthony Exsted joined the Marine Corps to get a higher education. "I didn't have the discipline to stick with college [right out of high school]," Exsted says. "I figured I'd do that rather than rush into school and drop out my freshman year."

Exsted decided to wait until he returned from his deployment in Djibouti to enroll in classes. He spent a year studying in North Dakota before transferring to the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. The Marine Corps pays for up to 60% of his tuition, room, board and books. "I took the safest route and waited until I was done with all of my training so I could just go to school and put all of my time and energy into it," he says.

Prospective students scrambling to come up with tuition funds often sign a contract with the military to help pay their freight. The military grants members an opportunity to serve their country and a chance at a higher education, but it comes with drawbacks.Among them is the chance of being called back to serve before completing a degree. Exsted doesn't worry about that because, he says, the Marines are usually given a six month to one year warning. But if it were to happen, he'd be forced to put his studies on hold. "That's where there's a lot of friction," he says. "A lot of people have a hard time just picking up where they left off" after a deployment.

Ben McCallum also joined the service to pay for school -- and to gain U.S. citizenship. He decided to start taking credits while still stationed with a special warfare unit of the U.S. Navy in Virgina. He had to choose between two different academic financial plans. The first, the GI Bill, allows beneficiaries to attend all types of schools, including specialized ones such as pilot and culinary school, but requires a small payment (around $50) each month. No monthly payments are needed for the second choice, the Post-9/11 GI Bill, but beneficiaries of that program must attend a four-year university.

The Navy granted McCallum, who chose the Post-9/11 GI Bill, up to $80,000 to use toward school. Books are not covered, but he saves money by buying used books. McCallum could choose from any four-year college near his base and enrolled in Old Dominion University for fall 2010, where he can take up to 16 credits per semester. "They make sure you put the Navy first," says McCallum. "They want you to get your education, but at the same time, the service has to come first."

The GI Bill is not just for college. Tristan Seidel, who served in the same unit as Exsted, found that under changes to the program in 2008 he could transfer his benefits to a future wife's higher education or even for the down payment on a house. "I tried the whole school thing and I'm just not that into it," says Seidel. "But there's a good amount of stuff you can use it [money from the military] on now a days."

Because of the GI Bill, Exsted feels that, financially, he made the right choice by joining the Marine Corps, although many of his personal values conflict with ones enforced in the Marines. He does warn potential members to prepare themselves for a different way of thinking. "It's good for a lot of people, especially if you're just looking for the financial aspect," said Exsted. "But if you grew up with more of an open-minded, educated background, just be prepared to put up with some ignorance."

If McCallum had a second chance, he said that he would sign up for the reserves because they receive similar benefits, but, unless they're deployed, only need to show up one weekend per month and two full weeks per year. "Had I known that they get almost the same benefits as us, I would have done that," says McCallum, "But I like the Navy. You work with a lot of good guys and you get a lot of respect and appreciation from the people, which is always nice. There's just something about it that feels good."
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