Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series focusing on higher education funding options available to service members, retirees and veterans.

Military tuition assistance covers many education expenses for those in uniform seeking higher education, but there are limitations to the benefit, according to education counselors on the Fort Myer portion of Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall.

Financial aid other than military service-provided TA is available for service members to use, according to Cherlin Charles Ngala, a guidance counselor intern at the Fort Myer Education Center. Ngala also said the best option for service members seeking higher education could be to use their elected VA benefits because "they may be eligible for more than one."

"Service members could be eligible to use the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the Montgomery GI Bill and the Reserve Educational Assistance Program (REAP)," said Ngala.

She added that each service member's eligibility for VA benefits are different based upon individual circumstances.

TA limitations are specific to individual services. For example, in the Marine Corps, only active duty service members are eligible to receive TA. In other branches, some reservists are eligible to use TA.

Under current Army and Marine Corps tuition assistance program policies, TA can be used to pay for post-graduate degrees, up to 39 graduate semester hours.

In addition, there are also limits on how the assistance is applied to educational costs. TA pays up to $250 per credit hour and service members can only receive up to $4,500 per year in TA.

"The military branch or component, rather than the VA, determines the percentage level of tuition reimbursement," according to the Veterans Benefits Administration Web page. "If an individual is taking very expensive courses, tuition assistance, even at the 100 percent level, may not cover the entire cost of the courses."

Regardless, enlisted service members within one year of the end of their enlistments can still take advantage of military-provided tuition assistance.

"If they are separating within a year, it's still possible for them to take advantage of TA," explained Ngala. "We'll help them get set up through www.goarmyed.com to register for classes [and] get connected to a school, so they can start using it towards their college credit."

Marines can use TA to fund college classes as long as the classes are completed at least 60 days before their end of service date, according to Bart MacMillan, education and career specialist at Marine Corps Community Services Henderson Hall's Education Service Center Class. For Marine Corps officers, classes must end two years before end of active service, he said.

Another limitation of TA is that it can only be used to fund college education. It cannot be used to pay for certifications, not even those related to Military Occupational Specialties (MOS), according to Karen Powell, one of JBM-HH's education guidance counselors.

But TA can be used to attain language-related training after receiving a master's degree, according Jo Boston, guidance counselor at Fort Myer Education Center.

"A lot of times [service members] use the certificates to supplement their degree programs," explained Powell. "For example, [service members] may already have a bachelor's and they are getting ready to transition to the civilian workforce. They ask themselves, 'What is going to help me get a leg up in the competition?' They use a certificate to supplement their degree."

However, service members can use their GI Bill to help pay for preparation courses, classes that equip service members for certifications. VA benefits, such as the Montgomery GI Bill and Post-9/11 GI Bill can be used to pay for "licensing and certifications as well as supplemental education and training," according to the www.goarmyed.com section on "credentials."

Still, if service members choose to pay out of pocket for certifications, Boston said they can be reimbursed via the GI Bill. Service members can use the GI Bill to pay for certifications in the automotive industry, medical field, graphic design and other various vocations, according to the VA's benefit website.

Service members will even be reimbursed - according to the same website - if they choose to take multiple tests, the same test numerous times, and even if they fail the tests for certifications.

However, there are stipulations: VA benefits only cover the cost of a test up to $2,000.

Service members can also use scholarships to pay for college courses. JBM-HH guidance counselors recommend that service members pursue scholarships by applying to them via college and universities or base education counselors.

For more information on various tuition assistance and education programs available to service members and veterans, visit the following websites:

DoD Tuition Assistance Decide program:
https://dodmou.com/

U.S. Army tuition assistance program overview
http://go.usa.gov/cnSyC

Marine Corps Community Services Henderson Hall Education Service Center http://mccshh.com/education.html or call 703-614-9104.

For information on the Department of Veterans Affairs GI Bill program, visit http://benefits.va.gov/gibill/handouts_forms.asp.