Free education possible through military benefits

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- "Show me the money!" 

That's what Tom Cruise had to do for Cuban Gooding Jr as the titular character in the Hollywood film. And that's just what the Air Force is doing for Airmen interested in pursuing higher education. 

Through programs like tuition assistance and the G.I. Bill, Airmen are left little excuse for skipping school. Both programs cover the cost of tuition and they can be used in tandem under certain circumstances. 

It's no wonder, then, that many Airmen are using the program at Vandenberg. Since October 2007, 1,363 people have enrolled in 2,277 classes. The money these people have saved in tuition: more than $1 million. 

"We have a lot of people getting highly educated, but it seems that some stop at their Associate's Degree," said David Kimble, an education technician with the 30th Force Support Squadron's Education Center. "What they may not realize is that the Air Force will pay for two Associate's Degrees, on Bachelor's, one Master's and one professional certification. That's an untapped benefit." 

And it's an easy benefit of which to take advantage. Active duty Airmen need only go to the Air Force Virtual Education Center via the Air Force Portal. From there, they can click on the "Apply for TA" link and fill out the electronic form. The Airmen must already be enrolled in either a nationally or regionally accredited school. 

Once the form is filled out and electronically submitted to the Education Center, the Airmen need only wait for a confirmation e-mail from the Education Center. If the tuition assistance is approved, the form can be printed or downloaded and forwarded to the school. 

Viola! Tuition is now paid. 

"The objective is to allow Airmen to apply for school, do TA and submit grades all online," Mr. Kimble said. "This cuts down on time going back and forth to the Education Center." 

There is a monetary limit to tuition assistance, however. The cap is $4,500 per fiscal year, with per credit hour prices not to exceed $250. For professional certification, the cost cannot exceed $9,000, spread over two years. 

For some people, these caps may not let them take classes at the school of their choice. That's where the G.I. Bill comes in. 

"The G.I. Bill can be used while you're in the service to supplement your TA, or when you get out," Mr. Kimble said. 

Airmen staying in the service using tuition assistance can activate their G.I. Bill benefit by going to www.gibill.va.gov and searching for VA Form 22-1990. The Education Center will help Airmen go over the form to ensure it is properly filled out before submitting it to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Once the benefit is activated, Airmen can start using it to help pay for classes when they've reached their fiscal year cap, as well as to pay for a higher per unit cost. 

"If an Airman is going to a school that costs more than the $250 per unit cap, they can apply for the VA Top Up program," Mr. Kimble said. "The G.I. Bill pays for the rest of the unit cost." 

Big changes have recently been made to the G.I. Bill benefit, but there is a lot of misinformation in circulation, he said. 

"Airmen need to go to the source and get their information only from the VA Web site (www.gibill.va.gov)," Mr. Kimble said. 

These education benefits not only help Airmen further their careers, but it can also help them improve themselves. 

"Education demonstrates to leaders that your broadening your vision, you're aware of what's going on in the world," Mr. Kimble said. "In general, you can be a better Airman if you're educated."