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How to Take Advantage of the GI Bill for a College Education

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If you’re an active duty service member or veteran of the military, you could use GI Bill college benefits to help pay for your higher education. But before you use your GI benefits, it’s important to take a few minutes to understand the complexities.

To learn about these military benefits and how to make the most of them, let’s answer the following questions:

What GI Bill college programs are available?

There are many different ways to qualify for GI Bill college benefits that will enable you to go to college. Especially relevant are the two we’ll focus on here: The Montgomery GI Bill and the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

Before we get started, it’s important to note that each of these programs has different benefits and eligibility requirements. You can find out more about them from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). You can also read these additional resources to see if your desired school works with your benefits.

With that said, let’s get an overview of each:

Montgomery GI Bill

Post-9/11 GI Bill

Montgomery GI Bill

The Montgomery GI Bill is available to those who served at least two years of continuous enlistment, entered active duty for the first time after June 30, 1985, completed high school and had military pay reduced by $100 a month for the first year of active duty. If your military pay wasn’t reduced by $100 a month, you may still be eligible if you meet the criteria outlined here.

In general, you have 10 years from the last day of active duty to use this program. Benefits from the Montgomery GI Bill are paid directly to you and max out at 36 months.

Post-9/11 GI Bill

The Post-9/11 GI Bill is available to those who served at least 90 days of active aggregate service on or after September 11, 2001, or 30 days of continuous service if discharged for service-related disability. If your service ended before Jan. 1, 2013, you have 15 years from the last day of active duty to use this program. If your service ended on or after that date, your benefits won’t expire.

Benefits from The Post-9/11 GI Bill may be paid directly to your school and max out at 36 months. Check out this pamphlet from the VA for more details on this bill.

Which program should you choose?

If you find yourself eligible for both, it can be difficult to figure out which to choose. Hopefully, a few of these considerations will make your decision easier:

With the Post-9/11 GI Bill, you receive a stipend for housing, books and supplies. The Montgomery GI Bill college doesn’t come with an additional stipend for these costs.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill makes it easier to attend private schools

Thanks to The Yellow Ribbon Program, you can potentially obtain additional funding should you choose to attend a private school or an out-of-state university. Just make sure your desired school participates with The Yellow Ribbon Program. Try using this tool to search for programs.

The Montgomery GI Bill offers more programs

If a four-year college or university isn’t part of your desired path, then you might want to consider the Montgomery GI Bill. This bill covers certain approved vocational programs, certifications, apprenticeship, correspondence courses and flight training. The Post-9/11 GI Bill doesn’t cover any of these.

Both offer a ‘kicker,’ providing additional funds

Whichever bill you choose, you can potentially receive additional funds with a “kicker.” The title may not sound like much, but the kicker – also called the “college fund” by some branches of the military – can be pretty significant. Some branches offer up to $950 per month.

The thing about the kicker is this: it varies depending on the branch you serve in. To learn more about the kicker and the qualifications you need to receive it, review your enlistment contract, the information on your branch’s website or visit a VA location.

The cost of your school matters

At first glance, it may seem like the Montgomery GI bill is a better deal since it’s paid to you directly, which means you can pocket the difference if there is any. But the amount you receive under this bill is capped at a certain rate. If your school tuition, housing and books aren’t covered under that amount, you could fall short.

On the other hand, the Post-9/11 GI Bill pays your full tuition at any public school – plus extra for housing, books and supplies.

What can you do if you run out of GI Bill benefits?

GI Bill college benefits typically cover four academic school years. But sometimes a life event or change in major can add more time to your education. If that happens to you, here are a few things you can do to keep your education as cheap as possible.

Apply for the FAFSA

In case your GI Bill runs out, you can see if you’re able to obtain grants and/or loans for your education. To access federal loans and grants, you need to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). And if you take out loans, don’t take more than you need. After all, the loans are a debt you’ll have to repay.

Look for additional state benefits

Depending on the state you live in, there may be additional education benefits available to you. The American Legion has a list you can use to search your state.

Load up on courses

If you will need additional time in school, you can keep the costs low by loading up on courses. Take as many as you can feasibly handle and consider winter break and summer break courses as well. As a result, you could shave off an entire quarter or semester of college – and quite a bit of tuition as well.

Apply for scholarships

In addition to the ideas above, don’t forget to apply for scholarships. You don’t have to be an incoming freshman or a star student to earn them. There are many scholarships out there for people of different skill sets, demographics and more. Use scholarship search tools to find scholarships specific to your background or that are earmarked for military members.

Besides that, there are quite a few scholarships for military members. Start out by going to your branch’s website and searching the education section. There, you’ll likely find a variety of scholarships based on the profession you wish to enter. Not all branch’s offer these, but be sure to check just in case.

Consider low-cost student loans

If you’re still falling short, you might consider student loans. But make sure to shop around to find a loan with a low interest rate. Federal student loans are usually your best bet, since they come with relatively low rates and a variety of repayment plans and borrower protections.

But if you max out the limits for federal loans and need a private one, compare multiple options so you can find a loan with the lowest costs of borrowing.


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