Joining the Military after College Benefits, Steps, & Expert Advice

Some students weighing their options after high school may view joining the military as an alternative to higher education or something to be done before considering a bachelor’s degree. In this guide, however, learners are invited to consider the possibilities – and benefits – of joining the military once they graduate from college. Aside from looking at options such as receiving GI Bill® funding after leaving the military or participating in ROTC while in school, this guide will also look at joining the military after college without having first done ROTC. While data about student veterans can easily be found – the National Conference of State Legislatures found that nearly one million veterans and active military members used GI Bill® funding for education between 2000 and 2012 – information for those who choose to complete a degree first is surprisingly lacking. The following guide exists to answer common questions and provide details for learners interested in taking this path.

Benefits of Joining the Military After College Graduation

Many reasons exist for joining the military after you possess a degree, and the benefits entice many individuals to prioritize their educations before taking the leap. The following section highlights a few worthwhile reasons a student might want to delay service to their country.

  1. Accelerated Officer Positions

    Whether planning to join the Air Force, Army, Marines, Navy, or Coast Guard, each of these military branches allow students with four-year degrees to bypass general enlistment and move directly into officer training. In addition to saving time spent working up the ranks, officers take on leadership roles and earn higher salaries.

  2. College Loan Repayment Program

    Under CLRP, qualified individuals who have not previously served in the military but hold existing student loans from attending college can apply for this repayment program when they join. While Congress stipulated a maximum amount of $65,000, branch set sits own maximums. The Army and Navy offer maximum repayment, the Marines allows $20,000 and the Air Force $10,000. The Coast Guard has a similar student loan repayment program for officers known as the College Student Pre-Commissioning Initiative (CSPI).

  3. Health Professionals Loan Repayment Program

    Specifically designed for individuals in the military who either possess or are in the process of completing a health profession-related degree, this program repays up to $40,000 annually – minus 25% taxes. To qualify, applicants must be in a Selected Reserve officer in the armed forces and plan to follow a career deemed critically needed during wartime by the Secretary of Defense.

  4. Graduate Education Voucher Program

    Under the GEV program, any eligible Navy officer can receive up to $40,000 towards a graduate degree – provided they plan to complete program requirements when they are off-duty. Applicants must demonstrate leadership potential and pursue a degree relevant to the goals of the Navy.

  5. Navy Postgraduate Dental School

    Made possible through the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, this program allows members of the Navy with a passion for dental health to join the Dental Corps and receive their education free of charge – provided they commit to serving in the military for a certain number of years upon graduation.

  6. Funded Legal Education Program

    Individuals hoping to become a member of the Army Jag Corps can apply to this highly competitive program, which selects 25 active duty lieutenants or captains each year to receive a J.D. degree which the government pays for. Individuals selected for this program most recently possessed average GPAs of 3.47 and LSAT scores of 159. Individuals attend a public school or a private school offering in-state tuition rates to military members.

  7. Developing More Life Experience & Education.

    Many Americans elect to join the military directly after college and feel they made the best decision for themselves. However, other students may benefit from the time spent in an academic setting, gaining both knowledge and practical, real-world skills that can serve them in the military and beyond.

How to Join the Military after College

After deciding that joining the military after college offers a promising path, many students still have questions about the logistics of such a plan. This section reviews common general requirements alongside the steps students take to join. When reading these, remember that different branches vary in terms of how they enable college graduates to join, but some similarities can be applied across the board.

General Requirements

  • Age

    The Air Force stipulates applicants must be aged 18-39 at the time they apply, while the Army requires individuals to be aged 19-32.

  • Education

    Applicants must hold at least a bachelor’s degree to receive consideration.

  • Citizenship

    Applicants must demonstrate proof of holding U.S. Citizenship at the time they submit an application.

  • Stringent Qualification Check

    In addition to the concrete requirements given above, each applicant is reviewed based on her/his potential for leadership, standards of morality, and strengths within the world of academics. Depending on the branch of the military, some applicants may be required to take and pass a qualifying exam to receive consideration.

Steps

  • Basic Training

    Known as Basic Military Training, the Air Force’s boot camp takes 7.5 weeks and exists to challenge recruits in every way imaginable. Individuals are overseen by a Military Training Instructor and training consists of mental and physical endurance, military history, national security and terrorist attack training, fighting/lifesaving skills, combat scenarios, and evaluations.

  • Officer Training

    Officer Training School lasts 9.5 weeks and requires four phases. The first phase focuses on building discipline, leadership, and teamwork, while the second instills skills in management, combat, and cross-cultural competencies. The third phase puts these skills to action as officers command an incoming enlisting class and pass evaluations. The final phase transitions officers into the Air Force through mentorship.

  • Testing

    Applicants to officer commissions must pass the Air Force Officer Qualifying Test which focuses on math and verbal skills and other specific aptitudes based on particular career paths. If entering a specialized field, candidates may be required to take additional exams.

  • Education

    Many officer commissions require bachelor’s degrees, while some mandate advanced degrees. Applicants must ask any college attended to send official, sealed transcripts for review in order to receive consideration.

  • Basic Training

    Basic Combat Training lasts 10 weeks and helps transition recruits from civilians to soldiers. Training is organized into phases. The red phase focuses on building teamwork while instilling skills related to field exercises and physical endurance. The white phase teaches skills in marksmanship and rappelling while also building confidence. The final blue phase includes the Night Infiltration Course (NIC) and ongoing weapon training.

  • Officer Training

    Officer Candidate School requires 12 weeks and includes two phases. Phase one focuses on building leadership skills and developing physical and mental stamina, while phase two puts those skills to the test. Candidates take part in a 2.5 week training mission where they lead a team through various obstacles and simulated enemy encounters.

  • Testing

    The Army requires no exam when graduating from Officer Candidate School, but may do so when applying to specialized officer positions.

  • Education

    Many officer commissions require bachelor’s degrees, while some mandate advanced degrees. Applicants must ask any college attended to send official, sealed transcripts for review in order to receive consideration.

  • Basic Training

    Training for enlisted Marines takes 12 weeks and is divided into four phases. The first focuses on military traditions, drilling, personal combat skills, and swimming. The second phase builds teamwork and marksmanship alongside providing training in live rounds and targeting. Phase three reviews combat survival and navigation before recruits complete a range of physical and academic exams. Once completed, they participate in a 54-hour field challenge.

  • Officer Training

    Officer Candidates School takes 10 weeks and focuses on building the leadership and endurance skills needed to lead enlisted Marines in a variety of settings. Training takes place in Quantico three different times per year.

  • Testing

    Applicants must participate in an interview, pass a physical fitness exam and medical exam, and clear a background check.

  • Education

    Many officer commissions require bachelor’s degrees, while some mandate advanced degrees. Applicants must ask any college attended to send official, sealed transcripts for review in order to receive consideration.

  • Basic Training

    Boot camp in the Navy takes 10 weeks and is divided into weekly themes. These include processing, confidence, hands-on, live fire, career, fire safety, battlestations, and graduation.

  • Officer Training

    Officer Candidate School lasts 12 weeks and exists to train candidates in all the physical and mental requirements of being a Navy officer. Candidates focus on memorizing details of Navy history and protocol, receiving additional academic training, and building their military skills along the way.

  • Testing

    The Navy does not require any exam when graduating from Officer Candidate school, but those planning to take on a specialized role may be required to take discipline-specific tests.

  • Education

    Many officer commissions require bachelor’s degrees, while some mandate advanced degrees. Applicants must ask any college attended to send official, sealed transcripts for review in order to receive consideration.

What Can You Do with a College Degree in the Military?

Like the civilian world, many options exist for how students use their degree within the military. Each branch of the armed forces needs qualified and educated professionals to carry out roles that require skills ranging from accounting to medicine to law. Keep reading to learn about just a few roles available in the military.

Career Spotlight:
What Careers can Joining the Military After College Lead to?

  • Air Defense Artillery Officer

    Operating as a member of the Army, these artillery professionals possess a finely-tuned understanding of advanced computer programs, radar equipment, and communications systems needed to detect and provide warnings related to potential enemy attacks. These officers are tasked with managing missiles and guns used and deploying them when necessary. Because civilians cannot operate this type of machinery, the military is the only place where one can find this type of job. To be considered for the role, applicants must hold an officer ranking, complete advanced training in areas of missile systems, mortar, artillery, radar, and/or computer control systems, and serve in an active duty capacity.

  • Women’s Healthcare Nurse Practitioner

    Whether caring for the infant daughter of a service member or providing preventative care to a military career woman, these medical professionals ensure that female service members, spouses, and daughters receive adequate care throughout their time with the military. They may be stationed at a military base, work as a travel nurse, or serve at a armed forces hospital. While many nurses specialize in women’s health, the chance to care for individuals serving their country is a rare honor. Applicants must hold a master of science in nursing, at least six months of full-time practice in women’s health, and participate in a commissioned officer training program.

  • Navy Diver

    These highly trained individuals work as part of a team to complete special diving missions throughout the world. They may take part in search and rescue assignments, work alongside other law enforcement groups, participate in expeditionary warfare missions, carry out aquatic machinery maintenance, or work on underwater construction projects. College degrees are not required, but applicants must meet a number of qualifications to be accepted – some of which can be satisfied with higher education. Training includes diver preparation, second class dive school, and fleet training.

  • Space Operations Officer

    Tasked with the truly unique opportunity of working in space satellites and communications, these officers manage surveillance, control satellites, provide warnings, and ensure the smooth running of all ongoing space operations. They may also work with other space operations staff to incorporate emerging technologies and develop new plans for ongoing protection. Applicants must be in the Air Force and hold, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree in a STEM topic. They must also possess knowledge of space systems, complete specialty courses and space training, and be between 18-39 years of age.

  • Psychological Operations Officer

    After completing a bachelor’s or master’s degree in a psychology-related field, commissioned officers in the Army can apply to this specialist role. Using their understanding of influence and persuasion tactics, these professionals work in roles such as counterespionage and negotiations to influence behaviors and actions. They must also possess a finely tuned understanding of cultural norms, politics, and trends to be effective. Applicants can exist as active or reserve service members but must be officers to receive consideration.

Enlisting as a College Graduate Instead of Joining as an Officer

While most college graduates think their best path forward to a career in the military is to join as an officer, some want a different experience. Officer training provides the most common path, but the military does permit graduates to enter as enlisted members. Though college graduates gain many valuable, transferable skills during their time in school, they do not learn the basic skills and knowledge related to joining the armed forces.

Topics such as military traditions, appearance, and the history of the branch you choose to serve in typically aren’t taught to officers, so someone wanting to work their way up may value this type of training. Others feel that, rather than immediately joining the ranks as a leader, they should experience training from bottom to top to gain the respect of those they command. When joining as an enlisted soldier, all new recruits go through the same paces and their commanding officers expect them to complete each and every step – regardless of existing education.

On the flip side, individuals pursuing a high ranking career may take much longer to receive a commission if they choose to enlist rather than moving straight into an officer position. They may also find it difficult to work alongside younger recruits moving straight from high school who do not possess their level of knowledge or drive for education. Individuals who join as officers also typically enjoy a higher quality of life, with benefits including higher salaries, nicer housing, and a more direct path to senior roles.

From the Expert

Alton E. Pete is retired from the United States Army. Born and raised in the Bay Area, he graduated from El Cerrito High School. After a couple of years in college, he later joined the army in 1987. He started his military career at Fort Lewis, Washington; was stationed in Hanau, Germany; and went on various assignments throughout the States and Puerto Rico. He’s currently back in college to pursue his master’s degree in music and then a PhD.

You spent a few years in college before entering the military. What made you choose to leave college to join the military?

I decided to leave college and to enlist into the United States Army June 1987 after speaking with an Army Recruiter by the name of Ronald Whitener in January 1987. He took me under his wings to see a bright, bright future for my life through the military and I was so blissful to accept such an incredible honor and opportunity to serve, protect and defend the United States of America. I was able to explore the world, visit places I would have never seen if it wasn’t for the Army. Like Germany, England, Puerto Rico, Ireland, Iraq and the lovely places in the United States. Plus the benefits are by far the best in the world. This was a fabulous move on my part, with no regrets. The military will make a man and a woman out of anyone who decides to make that fearless move for a promising future.

How did your years of college before the military affect your service? And on a related note, did it make a difference in your mindset?

The college life actually prepared me for a world that is full of ideas and opportunities. It provided the discipline, the determination to succeed and to get that good grade for a high GPA. Makes one feel educated and intelligent. I felt ready to join the Army and I was ready to basically leave the nest and spread my wings to become a better man and role model for my family. These thoughts were always floating around in my mind. I just wanted to see the world and grow up.

What was it like to go back to the college world after years of military service?

The transition to returning back to college after 26 years 4 months of faithful and loyal services for our nation was smooth. I was able to continue college part time while in the military, but now I am able to enroll full time being retired. I was prepared and I took mental notes while being active duty for the next endeavors of my life towards this bright incredible future.

What advice would you give those who are deciding between going to school first, or going into the military first?

I would highly recommend that everyone lose the fear and go after your goals, your hopes, and dreams. Your future is bright like the stars that come out at night. There is an age requirement for the Army, but not to further your education in college. Anyone just getting out of high school and don’t have a clue on what to do next with your life, join the Army. You can’t beat the training, the experience, the benefits or the honor of serving in the military. College is cool, but the military will provide everything you need to sustain one for a lifetime.

Anything else you’d like to add about going to college before military service?

College is necessary to keep your tools sharpened, speaking about the mind. The military advances the mind and will open your mind up into a very courageous adventure. Both are vital and essential moving forward. Make the decision and stick with the decision to achieve your ambitions or the time we have to carry out the dreams will tick away. When you feel tired, stuck, and don’t know what to do next, take a seat and rest your feet while gathering your thoughts together and just think it through. Get back in the race and win with your decisions.

Additional Resources

* GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government website at http://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill.