Making the Most of Your GI Bill®

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A few weeks ago, we shared reasons why online college is a great option for military personnel and veterans. We touched on the importance of the GI Bill® and the opportunities it creates for you, your spouse, and your family. With a minimum of 36 months of service, you are eligible for a defined set of benefits that can genuinely transform your life through education, employment, and economic mobility. Do everything in your power to fully capitalize on these benefits.

Today, we’ll dive deeper into the subject of your GI Bill. The opportunities created by this legislation are enormous, and you have a right to exercise this option. This means knowing how to leverage the educational benefits that come with your GI Bill and knowing how to avoid common pitfalls.

In a lot of ways, using your GI Bill to select a college is like preparing for a mission. Before you isolate and attack your target, you need to gather intelligence. That’s where we come in. We outline ways to make the most of your benefits, identify common mistakes to avoid, and we even impart a few pro tips to give you a boost.

Our pro tips come with expert input. Marine veteran and Senior Special Agent for the U.S. Secret Service Paul A. Buta lends his insights to help you make the most of your benefits.

A Quick GI Bill History

At the end of World War II, a generation of military personnel returned to civilian life. To ensure these returning veterans and all future service men and women enjoyed the brightest prospects upon their return, Congress enacted the GI Bill in 1944. Among other things, the new legislation provided veterans with funding and resources for college education. Nearly eight million veterans used this opportunity to attend college or trade schools. Not only did it help a generation of veterans re-adapt to civilian life, but it also nearly doubled the nation’s college population, expanding our collective knowledge, talents, and ambitions. Economic growth surged.

The Bill has undergone numerous changes over the course of its existence, often in the face of political conditions or military engagements. The most recent and consequential of these changes came in 2008. It was then that the Post-9/11 GI Bill was refined to include a dramatically expanded set of benefits for veterans of the War on Terror. These expanded benefits included wider funding for vocational and certification options, funding for housing and books, and removal of state-imposed caps on funding for public college tuition.

In 2017, Congress passed the Forever GI Bill, which eliminated the 15-year time limit for the use of veteran benefits as well as expanding benefits for National Guard and Reserve members, Purple Heart recipients, students focused on STEM programs, and enrollees at schools that shut down midsemester.

Target Acquired: Tips for Optimizing Your GI Bill

  Go Public

Your big goal is to literally “make the most” of your GI Bill. Going to a public college or university is one good way to make your money go farther. The GI Bill covers up to 36 months of full-time tuition in any state or public college or university.

Because private schools have tuition funding limits, you may more easily use up your GI Bill benefits in a private college or university before your education is complete. However, your public college or university tuition will be paid in full for 36 months by your GI Bill. Choosing the public option provides a wider latitude for attending public and state schools that might have otherwise been out of your price range.

Pro Tip: Don’t Dawdle

Since the GI Bill will cover up to 36 months of education in a public or state college, you have a chance to graduate college with limited student debt. You might be able to improve that chance with an accelerated program, or one that allows you to complete additional credits during summer and winter sessions. Do your best to finish in four years, or perhaps even slightly less. The less extra time you spend in school, the less debt you’ll carry with you.

  Buy Books

The GI Bill provides a stipend, paid directly to you, to cover the cost of books. Take advantage, but also, be selective. Your book stipend is fixed at $41.67 per credit with a cap of $1,000 every academic year. Depending on your courses, you could be expected to spend significantly more than that on books.

Opportunities abound to save on books, from scouting used and older editions online to locating free content online. Be a savvy book consumer and stay within the margins of your allowance.

Pro Tip: Don’t Spend Like Crazy

With both the pressure on professors to publish and the widespread availability of free information online, some book purchases are most definitely gratuitous, even if listed on your syllabus. Figure out what’s what before dropping a ton of cash.

  Live Where You Learn

You can also receive a stipend to assist with housing costs. The GI Bill includes a Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) that can help you finance an education somewhere you might not otherwise be able to afford. According to the Defense Travel Management Office "Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) is a U.S. based allowance prescribed by geographic duty location, pay grade, and dependency status. It provides uniformed Service members equitable housing compensation based on housing costs in local civilian housing markets within the United States when government quarters are not provided."

Visit the Defense Travel Management Office to view the BAH Calculator. Your GI benefits may allow you to live somewhere new, interesting, and exciting. This could mean an opportunity to live and learn in an otherwise inaccessible setting. There’s no telling what kinds of opportunities the experience might open.

Pro Tip: Go Blended

As an online student, you can still make the most of your MHA by pursuing a blended model of learning. Just one brick-and-mortar-school course worth three credits can earn you the full sum of your Monthly Housing Allowance, even if the rest of your classes are taken online.

  Relocation Remuneration

By the way, if you plan to make a big move for school, the GI Bill will also pitch in $500 toward relocation costs. That should help pay for the moving van.

  Know Your Options

The GI Bill is designed to open doors, but in fact, which kinds of door can be opened is flexible. Leverage the funding from your GI Bill for graduate and undergraduate degrees, vocational/technical/onsite training, flight school, licensing and certificate programs, national testing programs, entrepreneurship training, and even tutoring.

As you pursue your options, define exactly what you want and where you want it to take you. Envision your career and determine the kind of education likeliest to convey you there. Chances are, the GI Bill creates a direct avenue to that education.

Bear in mind that any program must be approved by the Department of Veterans Affairs before the GI Bill’s benefits may apply. That said, your options are broad and far-reaching. There’s no reason to pursue a course of education inconsistent with your interests or professional ambitions. The GI Bill gives you a chance to pursue the education, training, or certification program that makes the best sense for you.

  Gather Information

This is one big reconnaissance operation. Gather intel on your prospective career options, the kind of schools most compatible with those options, and the quality, reputation, and accreditation status of those schools. You’re also gathering intel on the GI Bill, what it can or can’t do, the educational opportunities it creates, and the steps you must take to get there.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is responsible for administrating the GI Bill, including approving the eligibility of both you and your chosen school. Visit the website, reach out to contacts in the Department, ask questions to fellow veterans who have been through process, and contact the admissions offices early at the schools on your list to learn more. Gather all the information you can before making a decision that could have a huge impact on your future.

  Find Balance in Your Life

According to military.com, 80% of military veterans attending school are 25 or older. Married couples comprise 60% of military veteran students, with parents making up nearly half. This makes military veterans unique among college demographics. You already have important responsibilities to family and career, in addition to your service commitments. Any educational experience must be compatible with those responsibilities and commitments.

Fortunately, military veterans often arrive at school with greater focus, determination, and real-world experience than the average undergraduate. Taken together, these needs and skills make military veterans particularly well-suited for online college. In fact, according to Inside Higher Ed, in 2012 (the most recent year for which data was available) 18% of military undergrads took all of their courses online, as compared to 12% of their nonmilitary peers. The gap was even wider for graduate students, with a full 41% taking all of their courses online, as compared to 19% of nonmilitary peers.

Is your life a constant balancing act? Then the convenience, flexibility, and accessibility of online college may be particularly appealing, provided you choose wisely. Check out this year’s ranking of The 50 Best Online Colleges & Universities 2019 for a look at what’s out there.

Beware the Tripwire: Common GI Bill Blunders

  Remember, Your Education Isn’t Free

You’ve invested considerable time into earning these benefits, which is why underestimating their tangible, significant, and concrete monetary value is one of the biggest mistakes military veterans make. Squandering this sum by making poorly informed or hasty decisions is tantamount to throwing away tens of thousands of dollars. Military.com notes that the assets comprising your GI Bill can easily exceed $50,000 in value. In other words, guard this amount with care and caution. Make smart decisions about how, when, and where you invest it.

Pro Tip: Pay for the Cheaper Stuff out of Pocket

If you’re starting in community college but ultimately plan to transfer to a more costly undergraduate program, consider paying for the community college out of pocket or through traditional loans. Save your GI funding for the far bigger cost of earning your bachelor’s or master’s degree.

  Avoid Active Duty Usage

Avoid touching your GI Bill while you serve. In addition to limiting your options based on location and circumstance, using your GI Bill while on active duty will significantly reduce your benefits. Neither housing nor relocation costs are covered if you are still on active duty. That means you’re bypassing thousands of dollars in potential benefits.

Pro Tip: Get Scholarships

The GI Bill creates incredible opportunity. But where there’s money, there will be people looking to take advantage. In this case, those people run degree mills and shady for-profit schools like the now-defunct Trump University. These shady schools use the legal loopholes surrounding the GI Bill to earn revenue without meeting certain standards of quality and accountability.

As a result, some schools have used predatory, dishonest, and aggressive recruitment tactics to target military personnel and veterans. This is where your research and due diligence become absolutely critical. Learn everything you can about the schools on your list. Your GI Bill is worth too much to be hijacked by a disreputable institution.

Know how to spot and avoid degree mills. We offer a few tips on how to tell the difference between these and legitimate online colleges.

You can also visit the Department of Veteran Affairs, which maintains resources for choosing military-recognized schools, along with a considerable wealth of information on how to leverage your GI Bill benefits.

The Department also maintains a website where you can lodge and review complaints against disreputable schools in relation to their acceptance of the GI Bill.

You can also check out this year’s ranking of The 50 Best Online Colleges & Universities 2019 for a look at those who are doing it right.

Wherever you look, the most important advice we can impart is to do your research. Conduct due diligence to ensure the online schools on your radar are credible, reputable, and effective in producing employable graduates. If your Google search turns up stories about corruption, enrollment scandal, fraud, or other legal action at the federal level, that’s probably a school to avoid.

If you’ve served in the military, you have earned your GI benefits. Some benefits may also apply to your spouse or children, including the transfer of any unused portion of your grant. This presents you and your family with a unique opportunity for education or career training without many of the standard financial burdens and obstacles. This means that when it comes to choosing an online college or certificate program, your GI Bill opens up a world of options. Explore that world.

Read on if you want to learn more about the close connection between military service and online college.

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 https://benefits.va.gov/gibill/index.asp

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