How to Use the Military Tuition Assistance “Top Up” Program
The Military Tuition Assistance Program is already pretty spectacular, offering up to $4,500 per year to cover qualifying education tuition and fees, but many service personnel attend colleges or programs that cost more than that.
Fortunately, the “Top-Up” program was created to help cover these additional costs not provided for under standard Post 9/11 GI Bill Benefits, which otherwise would need to be paid by you as out-of-pocket expenses.
And I’ve got more good news, because the Top-Up Program appears to remain funded this year, allowing you to continue utilizing this excellent benefit.
Who’s Eligible For “Top-Up”?
First, you’ll need to have education costs higher than what the traditional Tuition Assistance program covers and you’ll also need to be approved for Federal Tuition Assistance benefits.
Next, you must be eligible for MGIB-Active Duty benefits or Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits, you need to still be on active duty and have served at least 2 full years with your current service branch.
- Education costs that exceed traditional Military Tuition Assistance maximums
- Approved for TA benefits under MGIB-Active Duty or the Post 9/11 GI Bill
- Still On Active Duty, with at least 2 years served
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What Are The Top Up Rates for This Year?
No one seems to know… seriously.
We can’t find any official numbers, statistics, reports, forms, or comments about how much the Top-Up Program will cover this year, other than this cryptic message from VA:
The amount of the benefit is limited to the amount that the person would receive for the same course if regular benefits were being paid. In no case can the amount paid by the military combined with the amount paid by VA be more than the total cost of the course. If you are receiving the Montgomery GI Bill, you will receive the difference between what the DoD pays for the course and the total cost of the course (not to exceed the GI Bill monthly maximum). If you are receiving the Post-9/11 GI Bill your school will be reimbursed the difference between the amount the DoD pays for the course and the authorized maximum tuition and fees for the school.
We’re not entirely sure, but it sounds like the maximum amount you’ll be able to receive via Top-Up is whatever you still owe for tuition after your standard TA benefits have been applied to the total costs for your program.
What Does It Cost Me?
The TA Top-Up Program is great, it can definitely save you thousands of dollars, but it does come with a price.
To take advantage of these benefits, you’ll have to sacrifice some of your future MGIB or Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits by reducing the number of total months that you’re eligible to receive benefits from those programs.
For those on the Montgomery GI Bill:
- Your entitlement will be charged based on the dollar amount of benefits that VA pays out in the form of “Top-Up” assistance. For each payment you receive that’s equal to the full-time monthly rate for the GI Bill, you’ll be charged one month of entitlement. You can check out the current monthly rates at the VA website, here.
For those on the Post 9/11 GI Bill:
- Your entitlement will be charged based on the training time you’re enrolled in. So, if you’re attending classes 1/2 time, then you’ll get charged 1/2 a month of benefits for each month that you’re enrolled. The amount of money you receive doesn’t matter (tread cautiously here, as you don’t want to use up months of benefits for a small dollar amount).
How Can I Apply?
There’s a couple different ways to apply for TA Top-Up benefits:
For those who have never requested GI Bill benefits before:
- Apply online using the VONAPP program. Find out how to do that at the VA website, here
- Complete the physical application for benefits using VBA Form 22-1990, which you can find here
- Check the box “Tuition Assistance Top-up” under “Part III – Type And Program Of Education Or Training”
- Get an authorized military official to sign your completed application
- Send the form to the VA office handling your claim. Find mailing addresses for regional VA offices here
For those who have requested GI Bill benefits before:
- Send VA an electronic copy of the signed Tuition Assistance Authorization form (get it here) via their “Submit A Question” application, here. Don’t forget to explain in your question that you’re submitting an application for Tuition Assistance Top-Up benefits and make sure to include the TA Authorization form as an attachment as well
Top-Up claims are handled differently than claims for benefits without TA. Here’s how:
- Top-Up claims do not require that you check in with the school official who certifies VA benefits
- Top-Up claims do not require an enrollment certification on VA Form 22-1999
- Top-Up claims do not require that you check for approval of the program for VA benefits (since it’s payable for any course for which TA is payable, and you should have already been approved to use TA benefits on the course you need Top-Up for)
- Top-Up claims do not require having eligibility determined by VA, since the TA approval form establishes your eligibility to receive Top-Up benefits
- Top-Up claims do not require any certifications from the school
Top-Up Program FAQ
Here’s a couple extremely popular questions about Top-Up that we regularly receive emails about:
Question: Should I use Top-Up benefits?
Answer: Honestly, it depends. Top-Up is best for those personnel looking to complete their degree programs while still on active duty who don’t want to continue into higher education after their service has ended. For anyone else… probably not.
Question: Is there a limit to how much Top-Up I can use?
Answer: Yes. These benefits are limited to 36 months of payments (like the standard MGIB and Post 9/11 GI Bill packages). As an example, if you take one 3-month long course, you use up 3 of your 36 months of available benefits.
Question: If I use 36 months of Top-Up benefits, will I be out of MGIB or Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits?
Answer: Possibly, but probably not for the MGIB, but YES for the Post 9/11 GI Bill. Here’s why – for the MGIB Top-Up is based on your full-time monthly rate, so if your full-time rate is $600 and you use $300 of Top-Up, you only use half a month of MGIB benefits. However, for the Post 9/11 GI Bill, your rate is based on the amount of time you use the benefits, and has nothing to do with how much was actually spent. If you use 3 months of Top-Up benefits, then you’ll lose 3 months of Post 9/11 GI Bill eligibility – even if the Top-Up was for some trivial amount like $50 per month. Be careful!
Question: Can I apply Top-Up benefits to training or education I already completed?
Answer: Yes, you can, but there are some limitations. First, you have to be eligible for the MGIB or Post 9/11 GI Bill programs and second, you can only apply retroactive Top-Up benefits to a class that was completed one year earlier than the date your claim is received by VA.
Get More Information
If you’ve got other questions about the Top-Up Program then please feel free to post them as comments via the form below. We’ll do our best to answer all questions within 24 hours.
For information on how to get the most out of your other education benefits, make sure to visit our Guide to Maximizing Military Education Benefits. Don’t give up the chance to save tens of thousands of dollars. You’ve earned it!
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Hello, I have reached out to the VA at my school to get my questions answered, but unfortunately, no one has responded. I have 2 courses beginning on Monday. It is Master’s level so the cost is higher. I am currently active duty Marines with 24 months in service as of May 15. I have already been approved for TA for the 2 courses I have beginning on Monday. I applied for my benefits on the VA website for the MGIB Chap 30 and selected Top-Up as one of the choices. I have followed up with them weekly since submitting my application May 15, but it is still pending review and approval and all they could do is refer me to my school for answers. I’m very concerned at this point because my 2 courses begin on Monday and I don’t know if I need to withdraw from them. I know I will be approved for the MGIB benefits, but, can I be approved AFTER my courses begin and the top-up then be applied to the courses I am currently enrolled in? The school gave me a form to complete for the top-up which instructed me to attach my award letter. I, however, have not received this award letter yet from the VA. What should I do?
I can’t give you an answer on this. You’re going to need to get in touch with the VA or someone from the Financial Aid Department at your school, and do whatever they suggest for handling this.
If I have the post 9/11 GI Bill, why would I bother using tuition assistance and the top up program? Doesn’t the GI Bill cover everything on its own already and costs exactly as many months as the top-up?
It depends on what kind of costs you’re facing. The Post 9/11 GI Bill doesn’t always cover all your costs, which is why programs like the Yellow Ribbon Program, TA and the TA Top-Up Program were created.
I have an additional cost of $660 that TA does not cover for my MA degree. I am using TA and applying for my MGIB to cover my class cost and wanted to know if Top Up would be the better option?
This is a tough question – you’re going to have to look into how Top Up works for your specific service branch, see what benefits you have available via the MGIB as well. Are you sure you’re using the Montgomery GI Bill though (MGIB)? That’s the old, old version of the Military Education Benefits Program. We’ve already had the Post 9/11 GI Bill since then, and now most people are on the Forever GI Bill.
If a Sailor put money into TOP-UP, can they receive a refund if not used?
I’m pretty sure that you can get a refund if the money wasn’t used, but I’m not sure what that process looks like or how to initiate it. I would contact the VA for details.
Hello, I’m Active-Duty Navy (14 years in) and looking to enroll in an aviation-related degree program as a a Virginia resident at a Public College in Maryland. The out-of-state tuition exceeds the Tuition Assistance maximum of $250/credit hour, so I’m looking to use Top-Up to cover the rest (approx $100-120/per hour). However, there will also be extensive lab fees (flight training) for the courses. Does Top-Up allow the Post 9/11 GI bill to kick in and cover those — as if Top-Up wasn’t in the picture? My other option is to pay the above-mentioned difference in tuition out-of-pocket and don’t use TA at all. I’m getting conflicting answers from the school’s certifying official… Any assistance would be greatly appreciated.
I don’t want to steer you the wrong direction so I’m going to defer to the experts at the Student Loan Ombudsman Group on this question. These guys are a Government-backed entity of lawyers that provide legal advice on complicated Federal student loan issues. I like them because they’re free, and Government-sponsored. They don’t screw around and I’ve never heard of them getting anything wrong either. You can contact the Ombudsmen here.