I know about the ultimate college hack
Really, it’s a life hack.
Let me paint you a picture.
What if you could go to college and get a great education for zero dollars.
Then, after you graduate (without mountains of student loan debt) you’re guaranteed a well-paying career, for 4-5 years, or much longer if you’d like. While in that job you’ll have great benefits like health care and a very competitive retirement plan.
This opportunity offers invaluable career and life experience, you’ll meet and work with some of the best people you’ll ever know, have international travel opportunities and so much more.
Sounds good, right?
I know how awesome it really is because I did it. And my husband did it (it’s how we met). And my brother did it.
And most of my closest friends did it (that’s how I met them). And several other members of my family did it. And hopefully, my kids will do it, too.
What If I Don’t Want To Go To College?
If college isn’t your jam, don’t worry, I’ve got you covered, too.
You can still have all the things I mentioned above and just skip the college part. Or you can do college later if you want.
You don’t have to decide right now, the option will be there.
You Have My Attention
Ok ok ok, what is it already??
Seriously? That’s your great idea??
I have literally nothing to gain or to lose by trying to convince you this is a good idea. There’s no affiliate link for the military.
I don’t get any money or brownie points or anything. I’m not responsible for you in anyway.
If you or your kids or whoever else joins the service or doesn’t, my life changes exactly zero. But if it ends up being a good fit for you, your life will change dramatically.
Going into the Navy is the best decision I ever made, and I think the military is very overlooked by so many people.
Before you decide I’m crazy, hear me out.
I know it’s not for everyone…
That’s definitely true, the military is not for everyone.
However, it’s worth being considered at the very least.
Chris and I both went to the Naval Academy and got fantastic educations from a top institution in the country for “free”. It didn’t cost us money in the traditional sense that college costs money.
We paid for it with blood, sweat, tears, and service instead of money, and would do it all over again.
We started our adult lives with zero student debt (without a rich family member to bankroll it for us), a guaranteed job for at least 5 years, a fantastic education, lifelong friends (for real), an amazing alumni network, and what I now realized was quite a good salary for a fresh out of college 21-year-old with no actual experience.
Let me say one thing again: ZERO STUDENT LOANS. NONE. ZERO.
And a guaranteed job.
Instead of spending the first decade or two of our adult lives paying down our student loans, trying desperately just to get back to broke (a net worth of zero, instead of negative), we started there.
If that wasn’t a big deal, there wouldn’t be a “national student debt crisis” and it wouldn’t be a hot topic for every politician running for office.
The Nation’s Service Academies offer a full scholarship for an excellent education and a 5-year active duty service commitment after graduation. Upon graduation, you’re commissioned as an ensign or second lieutenant in the appropriate service.
The Merchant Marine Academy has slightly different requirements/options but in general, there is still a 5-year service commitment for your education.
Your Service Academy options are:
Navy & Marine Corps: The United States Naval Academy, in Annapolis, Maryland (obviously the best choice)
Army: The United States Military Academy, in West Point, New York
Air Force: The United States Air Force Academy, in Colorado Springs, Colorado
Coast Guard: The United States Coast Guard Academy, in New London, Connecticut
Merchant Marines: The United States Merchant Marine Academy, in Kings Point, New York
Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) Scholarships
In addition to the service academies, many universities and colleges across the country have Reserve Officer Training Corps, or ROTC, units.
Each service has an ROTC training program and scholarship option that you can apply for during the same time you’re applying to colleges.
You attend the school “normally” and are a member of the ROTC unit at the school as well. You take ROTC specific classes as a part of your course load, you wear the appropriate service uniform, and have additional obligations and duties to the ROTC unit, above the basic requirements of your school.
If a service academy and a civilian school had a baby, that would be ROTC.
The ROTC scholarship covers tuition, but not room and board. Upon graduation, you’re commissioned as an ensign or second lieutenant in the appropriate service and incur a 4 or 5-year active duty commitment, depending on your service.
You can read more about each services’ ROTC scholarships and specific details here:
Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (The Marine Option can be found here too, under the “career options” tab at the top of the page)
The Coast Guard does not have a ROTC program like the ones above, but they do have a similar program called College Student Pre-commissioning Initiative (Scholarship Program) which you can read more about, here.
Or college never, if you prefer, but later can be an option too.
The service academy and ROTC options are all great, but they’re also extremely competitive.
If any of this sounds like a good idea I highly recommend you apply for any and all programs/schools you’re interested in. If you do everything in your power to walk down this path and your application isn’t accepted, that doesn’t mean the door is closed forever.
Enlisting in the Navy, Marine Corps, Army, Air Force, or Coast Guard are also really fantastic options.
As an 18-year-old high school graduate who enlists, you’ll have a steady job and paycheck, a roof over your head, three hot meals a day, health care, a good retirement plan (that you don’t have to do 20 years of service to take advantage of anymore), and resume experience that can set you up nicely for when you leave the service.
There are plenty of opportunities for travel and training, and I cannot stress enough the invaluable life experience you get from being a member of the military. In any branch, officer or enlisted.
If you serve just one enlistment (4 years +/-) the benefits you earn are huge!
While you’re on active duty you can take advantage of tuition assistance, covering a large chunk of tuition costs for college classes you’re taking.
Three years of active service earns you 100% of the Post-9/11 GI Bill which can pay for your college tuition, and comes with monthly housing and book stipends to help cover those costs as well.
Graduate Education Opportunities
If you stay in the service after your initial obligation from a service academy or ROTC scholarship is fulfilled, you start earning GI Bill benefits like everyone else.
After the initial five years I owed from the Naval Academy, I stayed on active duty and earned 80% of the GI Bill benefit before transferring to the Navy Reserves.
I used it to get my MBA from Washington State University and paid next to nothing out of pocket, and I still have a few months of unused benefit I could put towards something else if I choose.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill is designed to cover the cost of an undergraduate degree from a public university or college. It’s not intended to be able to fully fund a graduate degree, or private institution with higher tuition.
It can be used for almost anything you desire, but be aware there is a cap on how much cost is covered. There are also programs like the Yellow Ribbon Program that can help cover additional costs the GI Bill itself may not.
Tuition Assistance & Transferring Credits
Chris is still on active duty and was able to use tuition assistance for his graduate degree.
Marshall University accepted his professional military education, training requirements he’d already completed for his job, as transfer credits in their Leadership Studies program. He started with almost half the credits required.
Chris earned a Masters in Leadership Studies from Marshall, also for next to nothing (way less than mine).
A degree in Leadership Studies may not sound like the ideal graduate degree for some, but as a Military Officer, it’s incredibly applicable. It will also be applicable in any kind of leadership position he could take in Corporate America after retiring from the Marine Corps.
Chris has long surpassed the 3 years needed past his initial commitment to earn 100% of the GI Bill and didn’t use any of it for his graduate degree. If he decides he wants to pursue another degree later, he can use his GI Bill to foot the bill.
We would love for our kids to follow in our footsteps and serve in the military for some amount of time, for all the reasons I’m talking about here, and a slew of others.
However, it’s not for everyone. We know it must be their choice, not something they can be coerced or forced into by their parents.
If they decide to not go down this path and need to pay for college more “traditionally”, Chris’ GI Bill can be put towards their education as well.
I’m not going to go into great detail of all the other benefits that come with service to our great country, because this post’s focus is on how to earn an undergraduate or graduate degree without racking up zillions of dollars in student loans.
But here are some highlights I believe are worth mentioning.
While on active duty you have health and dental insurance with no out of pocket cost, and your family is covered with a very small out of pocket cost.
As a service member or veteran, you have access to the VA home loan option, requiring no money down when you buy a house.
The “high-3” traditional 20 years to a pension retirement is no longer an option for people joining the service today. The high-3 pension system was replaced with the Blended Retirement System which at first glance seems very complex and hard to understand.
Ultimately though it gives service members who do not stay in the service for 20 whole years a retirement savings plan similar to a 401(k), which has never existed before.
Under the old system, if you left the service before 20 full years, you received no retirement anything.
Obviously any money YOU contributed to your retirement savings is yours to keep forever, but there was no pension or contribution matching from the government, your employer.
The Blended Retirement System has an option for a lifetime pension payout as well, albeit smaller because you also receive contribution matching, for those who serve for at least 20 years.
You receive the contribution matching even if you don’t serve for 20 years, a significant improvement to the old system.
What About The Service Part?
So, of course, nothing is actually free.
You don’t pay for your education or any of the other benefits that come with being a service member or veteran with money, but you do pay for it with your time.
You’re paid a salary, but you still have the service obligation for a few years.
It’s not just any service, either. It’s the military. The military is who fights wars. There is a whole slew of things that could come with fighting wars, some of which might be scary.
The different jobs and military occupational specialties within each branch of service have unique requirements and lifestyles that come with it. A deployed special forces unit has a much more inherently dangerous job than someone working at a desk in a headquarters building.
Depending on what you’re looking for, the military branch, and the job within that branch you choose plays a huge role in what your overall lifestyle will look like during your time in a uniform.
Sometimes, It’s Really Freaking Hard
Serving in the military and being a military family brings with it unique challenges. Frequent moves you don’t have much say in and time apart from your family, and other things that come with most jobs like long hours and high demands.
I’m not here to paint a picture of rainbows and unicorns and daisies everywhere. It’s a totally different lifestyle that a lot of people don’t understand.
It is very challenging sometimes. It is also very rewarding.
The beauty of all of this, is that you don’t have to serve for 20 years or longer to earn the tangible and intangible rewards and benefits of serving your country. Just a few years can do the trick.
It’s not for everyone.
But for those who choose to walk down this road, for a few years or a few decades, it can easily be one of the best decisions you’ll ever make. For so many more reasons than just avoiding a mountain of student loan debt.
If you’re looking for a way to pay for college, for you or someone you love, joining the military for a few years can be a really great way to check a lot of boxes, including skipping student loans.
It’s worth at least considering.
This post is FAR from all-inclusive. There are several other avenues to enter the service, to earn a commission, to go to college and join the military, and countless other benefits available to active service members and veterans. If any of this is interesting it’s worth learning more about!