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Military or College First? Pros and Cons for Each Option

Military or College First? Pros and Cons for Each Option

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Last Updated January 12, 2021

If you’ve just finished high school, or if you’re a graduate who went directly from high school to the workforce, you may find yourself deciding between going to college or joining the military. 

The question many people face is this: Am I better off going to college and then joining the military, or enlisting first and then enrolling in college?

Neither option is “wrong,” as both provide a pathway to future success. Here are some advantages and disadvantages of each option to help you choose the path that is best for your unique situation.

College Before Military Service

Going to college is the route most high school graduates take, at least initially. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in October 2019, 66.2% of high school graduates between the age of 16 and 24 were enrolled in a college or university.

Going to college provides high school graduates with the traditional, coming-of-age college experience. For those considering the military, it also offers the chance to think about the military option longer.

Other advantages of going to college before joining the military including the following:

  • With a college degree, you may be eligible to enlist in the military as an officer. According to the U.S. Army, a bachelor’s degree is needed to become a commissioned officer and a master’s degree is needed for those who want to rise to the rank of captain and above.
  • You may have a higher chance of being promoted. As noted by the U.S. Navy, officers tend to be highly educated and experienced, hold college degrees and rise to the leadership and management teams. 
  • You may qualify for the College Loan Repayment Program (CLRP). It’s important to check each military branch as they have differing rules. In the Army, for example, the CLRP program is available for “highly qualified applicants entering the Army.” The Army will repay 33.3% of outstanding loan amounts each year of service, up to $65,000 in total. Individuals must agree to three years of service and decline enrollment in the Montgomery GI Bill®, among other criteria.
  • You may find it easier to transition into the military after gaining more life experience in college, rather than the other way around.

One disadvantage of attending college before joining the military is that you may not qualify for the typical military tuition reimbursement package that individuals receive when they join the military first and then attend college. This means tuition, room and board, books, fees, meal plans and other expenses may initially come from your pocket. You also may have to take out student loans, something that 69% of young adults did in 2019.

Enrolling in College After Enlistment

For those who enter the military before attending college, one advantage is that you may be eligible for military benefits that pay for education both during and after your time of service. The Post-9/11 GI Bill® is one option that provides military servicemembers and veterans with educational benefits that can help make it easier to pay for college.

Other benefits from enlisting in the military before going to college include the following:

  • Some of your military training could qualify for college credit as determined by the American College on Education (ACE)*. As of 2019, Villanova University’s College of Professional Studies accepts a maximum of 15 ACE credits from a Joint Military Transcript.
  • Joining the military early in life means you may be able to retire earlier. According to U.S. News & World Report, those who serve for at least 20 years can typically collect retirement pay. Conceivably, those who enlist at 17 or 18 could retire before 40 and collect military benefits, and still be young enough to pursue a second career.

One of the disadvantages of entering the military before college is that you may start at the bottom in both rank and pay grade. Also, if you take classes while still serving, it might prove challenging to balance school with service requirements. 

What About ROTC?

The Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) is also an option to consider. If you join ROTC, the military pays for your college education if you commit to join the service. You’ll receive training in military skills and leadership development, as well as academic study. Courses are held in traditional classrooms and in the field. When you complete the program, you may qualify to enter the military as an officer. ROTC programs are available at hundreds of colleges and universities across the country.

Is it Better to go to College First or Enlist in the Military First?

Either choice is valid and has its advantages. Enlisting in the military first means gaining the opportunity to retire earlier, have college paid for and potentially avoiding student loans. On the other hand, graduating from college first and then enlisting may allow you to start off at a higher rank and pay grade, with more opportunities for leadership roles.

Regardless of whether you choose the military or college first, it’s important to stay true to yourself and make the choice that best suits your goals, ambition and personality. 

*Students wishing to earn ACE credit will be required to take a proctored exam for each course. Universities may or may not accept the ACE credits for certificate classes. The fact that a university will accept ACE credit is not a guarantee that any given school is going to accept the credit in transfer. ACE-approved coursework must be evaluated by the registrar at the specific university before it will be accepted for transfer.

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 Web site at