BOISE, Idaho - Idaho Army National Guard Soldier Sgt. Seth Gaskins left Boise in 2012 to attend college in Oklahoma on a wrestling scholarship. He was there for a year before returning home to continue his education, this time without a scholarship to pay the way. That summer he began working on temporary military orders, where he learned about how the National Guard could help pay for his education through tuition assistance programs.

"In the summer of 2012 I worked in the supply section for recruiting and retention," said Gaskins. "My sergeant at the time told me if I'm going to school I need to talk to the education office. So I went there and they helped me figure out how to use my benefits to pay for school."

Gaskins graduated Boise State University last semester debt free with a bachelor's degree in exercise science. He is currently studying to take his certification as a strength and conditioning coach, while continuing to serve in the Idaho Army National Guard as a signal specialist with C Company, 116th Brigade Engineer Battalion.

"I worked my butt off to finish school," said Gaskins. "I did it in five years, and I did it debt free. I hope a lot of other Soldiers choose to do that because there are great benefits out there, some now that I didn't even have."

When Gaskins first started school, the only benefits available to him were the GI Bill and Federal Tuition Assistance, he said. At that time the two benefits could be used together, but only to pay for up to 16 semester credits per year. His first year, Gaskins took all 16 credits in one semester and had to cover the next semester's tuition himself.

"I buckled down and drained my bank account for the next semester," said Gaskins. "From then I was always flirting with that line of 'I'm going to run out of cash to go to school.'"

That was until the Idaho Army National Guard's State Education Assistance Program began in 2015. Gaskins said being able to use federal and state tuition assistance together was the only reason he could attend school full time and finish his degree debt free.

The state program was first designed to help Soldiers pay tuition and associated costs not fully covered by other education benefits, such as the GI Bill and Federal Tuition Assistance. Like other programs, it aims to support Soldiers' professional and personal self-development goals, but offers more opportunities to choose various educational paths in order to achieve future employment.

--Receive up to $5,000 a year in tuition assistance and costs

Idaho Army National Guard Soldiers who complete basic training and are in a drilling status can receive up to $5,000 each year in state tuition assistance and associated costs through the program for educational purposes ranging from undergraduate degrees to vocational certifications. This is in addition to the tuition assistance Soldiers can receive through the GI Bill and Federal Tuition assistance.

The program helps Soldiers find jobs and achieve a legacy of education rather than a future of debt, said Capt. Sean Crow, Idaho Army National Guard state education officer.

"We need our Soldiers to be able to get an education that does not give them a future of debt," said Crow. "They also need to keep employed so they are ready to serve at a moment's notice without finances taking their minds away from doing their duty."

--Beyond an associate's, bachelor's or master's

Both fulltime and traditional Soldiers using state assistance can attend any regionally or nationally accredited vocational school, college or university that has a business office in Idaho. Soldiers are even able to earn certifications for such things as pilot's licensing, hairstyling or welding.

The state program has no time limit of eligibility, limit of credit hours or last-obtained degree level like other programs. This means Soldiers are eligible to use state assistance for as long as they need to and for any degree or certificate, regardless of degrees or credits previously earned.

In comparison, a GI Bill only pays for up to 36 months of benefits and the Federal Tuition Assistance has a lifetime limit of 130 undergraduate and 39 graduate semester hours. Federal Tuition Assistance also does not pay for professional degrees or anything above a master's degree as the state program does.

1st Lt. Phillip Bettis, medical detachment clinical training officer, is receiving $5,000 a year through state assistance to pay toward his Doctor of Pharmacy at Idaho State University. Although that amount does not completely cover his annual tuition of $17,000, and he does not qualify for any other benefits, he said every little bit helps.

"It definitely helps relieve a big burden," said Bettis. "Especially having a family and having to worry about paying for food, diapers and living expenses. It takes a lot of that stress away so I can focus more on school."

--"I can relax and focus on school without worrying about making rent and bills"

Soldiers who take advantage of their education benefits may have more time to focus on school as well as the opportunity to take more classes at no cost to them.

Spc. Matthew Garcia, E Company, 145th Brigade Support Battalion and a student at Boise State University, was unaware of his ability to use both federal and state tuition assistance until recently. For the past few years he could only afford to attend school part-time and would work any job he could find to pay his tuition.

Garcia is now attending school full time at no cost to him by using both federal and state tuition assistance programs. With the money he is saving on tuition, Garcia is able to pay other bills such as rent and focus less on work and more on school.

"I am not able to work as often now that I am taking more classes," said Garcia. "But since my tuition is being paid for I can save the money I earn and put it toward paying rent and bills. Next fall I'll have even more money saved up from working in the summer, so I can relax and focus on school without worrying about making rent."

Approximately 130 Soldiers apply annually for state tuition assistance and that number continues to increase, with each Soldier receiving an average $2,000 to $2,800 per semester. With a total of $200,000 to $300,000 funding for Soldiers annually, the state approves applicants on a first-come-first-serve basis.

Soldiers who are interested in applying for the state assistance program can do so online 60 days prior to class start dates by visiting Guard Knowledge Online at https://states.gkoportal.ng.mil/states/ID/edu. In order to access the site, Soldiers must first register on GKO using their military identification cards, which can be done from home.

"Education assistance is a great benefit," said Gaskins. "It's really cool that we are educating the National Guard and sending Soldiers to school for free. All they have to do is use it."

For more information about education benefits and eligibility, contact the state education services office at 208-272-3615.