March 10, 2020

Education Benefits for Veterans

In the post-9/11 era, a “sea of goodwill” made up of organizations in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors has formed to support veterans, servicemembers, their families, and survivors. While services from nonprofit organizations and federal agencies are widely known, benefits offered by states to veterans are less so. State-level benefits, though extensive, vary widely and are often difficult to identify. To fill that gap, CNAS developed a State Veteran Benefit Finder with easily searchable information about 1,814 identified benefits. This tool allows users to filter state-level veteran benefits by type of benefit, beneficiary, and state to identify those for which they may be eligible and providing a unique and invaluable reference. The accompanying report “From Sea to Shining Sea: State-Level Benefits for Veterans” offers analysis of trends in state-level benefits and includes recommendations for an array of key stakeholders, from veterans to those who serve them, across domains. A series of follow-on briefs provides deeper dives into specific topics, including education benefits, legal and advocacy benefits, and benefits offered by U.S. territories.

Education Benefits for Veterans

Federally administered veteran benefits for education, such as the GI Bill, are some of the most well-known veteran benefits. States also administer a variety of education programs and benefits to veterans; the second most common type of benefit states offer, comprising 14 percent of state-benefits nationwide or 256 distinct benefits. These benefits provide financial, counseling, and direct academic services to help service members, veterans, their dependents, and survivors access educational resources to build their skillsets and ultimately their employability and potential earned income. Some trends at the regional level, organized into four different geographic regions (the Northeast, the South, the Midwest, and the West), are also noted.

Types of benefits include:

  • On-campus veteran resources and advising at state schools
  • Educational credits and/or diplomas
  • Loan provision or deferment, preferred status in acceptance or course selection
  • Assistance in transitioning across different state primary and secondary schools
  • Scholarships and tuition assistance
  • Transition assistance for separating service members
  • Special tuition rates promised for veterans
  • Refunds for coursework not completed due to activation and/or deployment

Veterans who honed knowledge and skills during their time in service sometimes find such skills do not translate easily to jobs in the civilian workforce or are hard to explain to potential civilian employers. Greater knowledge of the availability of these state-level education benefits may assist veterans as they seek ways to up-skill, re-skill, and become more competitive in the workforce. Understanding varying educational benefits for veteran dependents can further help with financial stability. Policymakers in state governments and organizations that support veterans can also benefit from greater understanding of benefits available in their own—and other—states.

Scholarships, Tuition Assistance and Rates, and Refunds

Most states administer their own scholarship and tuition assistance programs to provide financial aid to reservists and veterans attending public higher educational institutions. There are 109 scholarship and tuition assistance benefits available across 48 states, accounting for almost half of the observed education benefits available to veterans. Midwestern and Southern states provide the highest number of tuition assistance services to veterans. States like Minnesota and Wisconsin even bill their scholarship programs as “state GI Bills.” A total of 33 states offer educational assistance to reservists and members of the state National Guard. Two states, Kansas and Missouri, provide refunds for service members’ tuition costs for coursework unable to be completed in the case of the service member’s activation or deployment. States without exemptions or lost tuition coverage for activated service members should consider expanding such provisions, since guardsmen and reservists balance life, schooling or jobs, as well as their service for state and country.

Many tuition assistance benefits offer a complete discount on tuition fees, though some contain eligibility limitations. Other benefits offer specific amounts in scholarships or waivers. Some states offer additional stipends to support general cost of living, often as part of educational assistance programs for children of missing or deceased veterans who were killed in action. Education benefits are the most commonly offered benefit to survivors of those killed in action or prisoners of war.

Twenty-four states offer special tuition rates, including in-state, resident tuition rates or deferred billing, to veterans attending colleges, universities, or other higher education institutions. These tuition rates are most frequently offered across Southern and Western states and target specific beneficiaries such as active duty service members, National Guard and Reserve personnel, Purple Heart recipients, and those who separated with honorable discharges. These states provide in-state tuition rates to veterans beyond just those recently separated from military service, which may indicate that state governments and program administrators see value for either constituents and/or their economic base in providing continued access to education for veterans throughout their lives and careers. Of note, the 2014 Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act requires state higher education institutions to offer in-state tuition rates to veterans or their dependents within three years of the veterans’ discharge from service and therefore the rates identified here are applied to veterans in categories outside that mandate.

Educational Credits and Diplomas

Across 31 states veterans can access 35 discrete benefits for academic credit or a diploma (usually high school) based on their service and associated skills. Again, Midwestern (12 benefits) and Southern (10 benefits) states offer the majority of these benefits. To determine earned academic credit, the state programs accept specific military training as evidence of learned skills relevant to an area of academic focus or toward fulfilling core course requirements. Such reciprocity has the potential to save service members and veterans time and money otherwise spent taking classes imparting the same or equivalent knowledge. Service members and veterans should take into consideration differences between private and public institutions in their state and what training is accepted for coursework credit.

There are 27 states that offer honorary high school diplomas to service members, generally from World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, whom war may have prevented from earning a diploma. Eight states (Alabama, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, and Washington) name their program “Operation Recognition.” Most of these diploma-granting programs came about over the last two decades, granting diplomas to service members 30 to 60 years after they served. Given that a high school diploma or GED is a requirement for joining the military today, policymakers should consider what additional steps will support the up-skilling, re-skilling, and continuing learning activities there are for current and future veteran cohorts.

Loan Deferments and Preferred Status on Admissions

Few states provide loan deferments and preferred status on admissions and course selections; only two states, New York and Vermont, offer student loan deferments and forgiveness for active duty and National Guard members. This is a significant gap given the size of the Reserve component nationwide. Arkansas is the only state that provides veterans preference for admission to educational institutions, specifically to its National Guard or Reserve personnel. More states should consider offering veterans preferential status in education, as they do to support business and vocational benefits purposes. This would be particularly beneficial to formerly enlisted troops who are less likely than officers to have the family background, network, or résumés to understand the college-admissions process.

Campus Veteran Resources and Transition Assistance for Separating Service Members

Campus services to support veterans—academic and benefits counseling, veterans social and broader student population networking functions, and transition assistance for those recently separated—can be valuable resources for veterans navigating new administrative bureaucracies, social cultures, and living arrangements. Sixteen states across all four geographic regions offer state-administered programs providing on-campus resources across public higher education institutions with a number of states dubbing such resource programs “VetCorps.” Virginia offers a unique resource that assists service members suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or other behavioral health challenges and Washington offers a “supportive campus” program for the military community broadly and help members achieve success while at school. Such resource centers are able to act as a centralized repository for services and information about benefits, not to mention a support system for veterans in need.

The Department of Education’s Veterans Upward Bound Program helps veterans develop requisite skills through instruction or refresher courses in mathematics, foreign languages, laboratory sciences, and composition and literature to successfully enroll in and graduate from postsecondary educational programs. At least five states— Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, Utah, and West Virginia— manage additional educational services supporting Upward Bound programs at the state level. More broadly, ten states provide helpful resources to enable veterans’ successful integration into and completion of their academic programs through mentorship, assistance navigating entrance and aid applications, and tutorial services through Upward Bound and transition assistance services.

Primary and Secondary School Assistance

All 50 states and Washington, D.C., provide primary and secondary school assistance to active duty, National Guard, and reserve service members with dependents. Missouri and New Mexico have programs to assist military children complete primary and secondary schooling and enable timely and successful engagement in primary and secondary schooling, with Missouri exempting residency requirements for school registration and New Mexico providing military children enrollment priority. All states participate in the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children (“the Compact”) which assists military family school-age children as they transition across school districts, specifically in assisting their immediate enrollment, placement in appropriate academic programs, and establishment of an educational program that will enable military children to graduate on time. These programs are critical in helping students transition between school districts that may have different coursework criteria and ensuring that they are not at a disadvantage compared to their peers. The commitment by all 50 states to assist with school transitions can help ease concerns of service members who may be weighing the burden of moving to a certain state or school district on their families with their career and commitment to military service.


While educational benefits are the most common offered nationwide, eligibility and scope vary widely state to state. A majority of states offer special tuition rates for veterans and dependents while all states support military children educational consistency, though more could be done to facilitate and coordinate educational requirements. There is room for growth within the development of campus resource centers for the military community, though some private colleges also support veteran resource centers. The biggest gap in existing education benefits is coverage for Guard and reserve members who are called away from their studies on state and federal orders. Overall, education benefits for veterans are far reaching and expansive. State policymakers should consider how veterans can be supported further in education pursuits given shifting demographics and educational attainment in the current force.

Read more in the CNAS Military, Veterans and Society Program's "Supporting the Veteran Community" commentary series.

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