KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — For the last five years, Staff Sgt. Lee Rhyan has made sure to use up every penny of tuition assistance the Army would give him.

Now that tuition assistance has been suspended, his short-term plan is simple: wait it out and hope it comes back.

“I don’t think jumping the gun is the smart thing to do,” said the 28-year-old financial management technician.

But he is on a clock. He’ll get looked at for promotion in fiscal 2015, and he wants to knock out his degree by then to raise his chances.

So if the Army doesn’t reinstate tuition assistance within the next six to 12 months, he’ll start looking for other forms of financial aid, like grants and scholarships.

And if those fall through, “then I’d definitely be looking to the G.I. Bill to finish my degree.”

Those school funding alternatives are just what Keith Davis, chief of education and training at Ramstein Air Base, is recommending in the wake of the loss of tuition assistance from the Army, Air Force and Marines.

“It’s not doom and gloom, to be honest with you,” he said.

“Sure, you know, if you’re an airman out there and you’ve been used to it and you’ve just been plugging along, your initial reaction will be ‘Oh my gosh, the sky’s falling.’ But in reality, when you really peel the onion all the way back, for your student that wants to get their education, they can get their education.”

While the services’ tuition assistance programs were, by far, the most popular way for active-duty troops to pay for college, he acknowledged, those willing to fill out the paperwork might be able to get federal grants and scholarships to cover some or all the costs of higher ed. Loans are another option, though one that Davis recommends as a “last resort. Save that as the ace in the hole.”

For many, he said, the best option is probably one virtually every active-duty servicemember has sitting there waiting for them: the G.I. Bill.

U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, is promoting the idea, even though “the promise of tuition assistance should have been kept,” he said in a statement. But since three services have suspended their programs, “The G.I. Bill can help cover the shortfall until we turn this country around and can reinstate the tuition assistance.”

There are two basic versions of the G.I. Bill – the Montgomery G.I. Bill, which servicemembers typically enroll in at the time of enlistment (unless they opt out or sign up for student loan repayment) and the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, which every servicemember who served at least 90 days on active duty since Sept. 10, 2001 qualifies for.

Tapping into those benefits might make sense for some troops, especially those intent on finishing their education and who want to avoid debt, Davis said.

But it can be tricky. He recommends that all servicemembers looking for alternate ways to pay for tuition stop by their local military education office for guidance.

The Post-9/11 G.I. Bill is the better deal for many after they leave the service because of its housing stipend. It also allows servicemembers to transfer the benefits to family members, though they can reclaim transferred benefits at any time.

However, the Montgomery G.I. Bill – or MGIB – is almost always the better option for active-duty personnel who want to tap into the benefit, Davis said.

Ever since the Post-9/11 Bill was introduced in 2009, he’s told troops already enrolled in the MGIB, don’t switch “unless you have a reason to. And this situation right here reinforces that.”

When using the MGIB on active duty, the benefit is exhausted based on the number and cost of credit hours and the length of the courses taken, Davis said. If a servicemember were to take a three-credit class that ran six weeks and cost $750, that would burn perhaps a month’s worth of their 36-month MGIB benefit, he said. (The Veterans Administration, which runs the G.I. Bills, doesn’t yet have a way for troops to calculate how much of their MGIB will be used up by a particular course, but the VA does send alerts after courses are completed to let students know how much of the benefit they’ve used).

The Post-9/11 version, on the other hand, “has a one-for-one burn rate. So if that class is 45 days, then you used 45 days of education benefit” whether you take one class or 10.

Servicemembers who have put in three years’ worth of service, will get tuition and fees paid in full if enrolled in a state school and up to $18,077.50 per academic year for most private schools under the Post-9/11 Bill. If they use the benefit before the three-year mark, the bill only pays a percentage of the cost.

For example, if a soldier has been in the service 18 to 24 months, the Post-9/11 Bill would cover up to 70 percent of the cost of a course.

And, of course, when using the Post-9/11 Bill on active duty, “you’re not eligible to receive the housing stipend,” Davis said.

In the case of both G.I. Bills, using them while on active duty has no effect on the amount of time remaining benefits are available to troops after separating from the service.

For the MGIB, benefits are available for 10 years after leaving the service; for the Post-9/11 Bill, 15 years.

“That clock starts the day they take off the uniform, and only when they take off the uniform,” Davis said. Twitter: @MattMillham

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