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Everything You Need to Know about Your GI Bill Benefits

The GI Bill is a law that provides educational assistance to servicemembers, veterans, and their dependents. Most know that it helps you pay for college, but the GI Bill is broader and more comprehensive than many veterans realize. According to a 2014 study, approximately 60% of GI Bill recipients use it to pay for tuition and books but aren't aware of its other benefits.

In this guide, we'll explain the different versions of the GI Bill and the many different ways you can use yours to gain knowledge and skills. We'll also cover the GI Bill's limitations and help you figure out how to start using it.

Three Versions of the GI Bill

Depending on when you joined (or will join) the military and on whether you choose active or reserve service, you'll be entitled to one of a few different versions of the GI Bill.

  • The Forever GI Bill is the latest version, and most people who join the military now (on an active-duty contract) will be eligible to use it. It offers the most comprehensive benefits, the greatest total amount of tuition assistance and has the fewest restrictions on how you can use the money. The Forever GI Bill was rolled out in 2018 and served as an upgrade to the previous version, the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Most military personnel and veterans who were eligible for the latter were automatically upgraded to the former.
  • The Post-9/11 GI Bill was the standard version offered to active-duty personnel from 2002 to 2018. It was somewhat less comprehensive than the Forever GI Bill but still offered enough tuition assistance to cover most of the cost of a four-year degree. If you joined the military between September 11, 2001 and August 1, 2018 and have already used some but not all of your benefits, or if your benefits have expired, the details get a little tricky; you may or may not be eligible for the extended Forever benefits. Contact the VA for clarity regarding your specific situation.
  • Reservists and National Guardsmen are offered the Montgomery GI Bill, which offers much less tuition assistance and has more restrictions on where and how you can use the money. It's more of a stipend than a full benefits package, which makes sense; reservists contribute less time and energy to the military, so they receive fewer benefits in return. There's also an active-duty version of the Montgomery GI Bill, but it's being phased out and is not generally offered to new recruits.

For the most up-to-date information on the various versions of the GI Bill, visit the VA's website.

How to Negotiate for Better GI Bill Benefits

When you first join the military, you have a good opportunity to negotiate — an opportunity that, sadly, most new recruits don't take advantage of. Certain aspects of your contract, such as the length of your service commitment and your base pay, are typically fixed and inflexible. Other things, like your GI Bill, have more wiggle room. By the time you advance far enough in the recruitment process to be talking about contracts, your recruiter has already invested significant time trying to get you on board, and they'll be willing to offer some extra incentives to close the deal.

Expanded GI Bill benefits are one of the easiest bonuses to ask for. One such bonus is a “kicker,” an agreement wherein the military offers you extra money for school, usually in exchange for a small financial investment on your part. A common GI Bill kicker might involve an extra $10,000 in tuition payments in exchange for having your pay reduced by $100 per month for your first year of service. As long as you can live with the temporary pay cut, you'll net an extra $8,800 in the end.

The best question to ask during the negotiation phase is a simple one: “What else can you offer me?” Recruiters usually have a list of pre-approved incentives they're allowed to offer, and most are happy to do whatever it takes (within reason) to get you enlisted. Play hard to get (again, within reason) and you have a good shot at significantly expanded GI Bill benefits. Check out our guide on questions to ask your military recruiter to learn more in-depth tips on how to navigate the recruiting process.

GI Bill Limitations

In order to get the military to pay for your education, you'll need to comply with certain requirements; you can't just go to any school you want and send the bill to the VA. The list of restrictions is long, but you don't necessarily need to know every last one because not all of them will apply to you. Rather than list all of them, we'll review the most important things to be aware of.

In-State, Out-of-State, Public or Private?

The GI Bill is capped in terms of both money and time. Your benefits will be exhausted once the VA pays out a certain amount of money, or once you attend school for a certain number of months, whichever comes first. This is why most veterans choose to attend public schools where they qualify for in-state tuition — the overall cost is lower, meaning you can get more mileage out of your GI Bill.

This doesn't mean you can't use your GI Bill for out-of-state or private schools; you can, but the money will run out more quickly. To help mitigate this problem, the VA created the Yellow Ribbon program, a series of agreements with certain schools to offer reduced tuition to veterans. If you can't or don't want to attend a public or in-state school, look for Yellow Ribbon schools; you can run a search on the VA website. Note that the Yellow Ribbon program is available only if you have the Forever or Post-9/11 GI Bill.

Manage Your Deadlines and Grades

Once you've chosen a school, make contact with its VA advisor as soon as possible (every school has one). They'll tell you how to navigate the enrollment process correctly (the government won't pay if you don't dot every I and cross every T). Deadlines are an important part of this process. Your advisor will provide you with a list of dates by which you must complete certain tasks, and these deadlines are inflexible; if you miss any one of them, you may have no choice but to skip an entire semester and try again next time.

You'll also need to maintain certain grades; the exact requirements vary by school and degree path. If you fail a class or don't achieve the minimum required grade, the VA will send you a bill for the entire cost of the class, and your future GI Bill benefits may be withdrawn until you pay it.

Monitor Your Budget

Many veterans have chosen a school and signed up for classes only to find themselves in dire financial straits because they didn't fully understand how and when the VA pays for things. It could be weeks or months until your GI Bill funds are actually available, so plan accordingly.

Your tuition is paid directly to the school, and the school will wait if the payment is late, so you usually don't need to worry about that part. The stipend for your books and supplies is paid to you, but it's calculated based on your school's zip code and the number of credit hours you're taking, not the actual cost of your books. College textbooks and lab fees are rapidly getting more expensive, so your GI Bill payment may not cover the entire cost. This stipend is supposed to be paid at the end of the month prior to the month in which your classes start, but it's sometimes late, so have a backup plan in place if you're counting on that money.

Your housing allowance (if you're entitled to one) is also paid separately. Like the book stipend, it's calculated based on the zip code of your school and the credit hours you're signed up for, which means you'll get less (or no) money when you're not in class full time, and it's reduced by up to 50% for online classes. Also know that your housing allowance is paid 4-6 weeks in arrears; think of it as a reimbursement and budget accordingly.

Using Your GI Bill for School

Now that you know the most important general information about the GI Bill, you can start dealing with specifics. How exactly do you sign up for classes and get the government to pay for it?

For the most part, the process is straightforward, but it can take a long time. We recommend getting started a full semester before you want to start taking classes. For example, if you want to start in the spring, start the process at the beginning of the fall semester. The first thing to do is to contact the VA, get a copy of your certificate of eligibility and provide it to the school. It can take up to 8 weeks for the school to confirm your eligibility, but once your initial enrollment is complete, you don't need to allow as much time for subsequent semesters (unless you change schools).

Every school that accepts GI Bill payments from the government must have at least one advisor on staff who knows how to deal with the GI Bill, usually called the veterans' advisor or VA advisor. Contact your school and ask to be put in touch with that person. They will tell you what documents to submit and help you put together a degree plan that satisfies both the school's and the VA's requirements.

The fact that your classes need to satisfy two different sets of requirements can make scheduling especially tricky, which is one reason you'll want to sign up for classes as soon as registration opens. You'll likely have fewer classes to choose from than a regular student would, especially during summer and winter semesters, if you choose to take classes then (you'll have to if you want a housing allowance during those months, but the pickings will be slim, especially once you need 300 and 400-level classes).

You may receive a bill from the school for the full amount of your tuition. Don't panic: this just means that the VA hasn't yet sent payment to the school, which is common. As long as you update and confirm your eligibility every semester, you're not responsible for the bill or for any late charges. Just stay in contact with the university's financial administration office; they'll let you know if you need to do anything.

Other Ways to Use Your GI Bill

You can use your GI Bill at any public or private college anywhere in the world that's accredited by an organization approved by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), but there are many other ways to use it, too. If you want to attend a foreign university not accredited by the CHEA, you'll need to check with the VA; they maintain a specific list of foreign schools they'll pay for.

Trade schools are an increasingly popular option for people whose career goals aren't well-served by a college degree. As of 2018, approximately 70% of US-based trade schools are approved to accept GI Bill payments, but very few foreign trade schools are on the list.

Other ways to use your GI Bill include:

  • Apprenticeships, wherein you learn a high-value skill directly from an employer. The employer generally won't pay you; the knowledge you gain for free is your compensation. But you can use your GI Bill to pay for your living expenses while you work.
  • Work study programs, in which you'll be paid a salary by an employer in addition to your GI Bill benefits. Unlike an apprenticeship, in which you learn skills directly related to your chosen career, in a work study, the VA will place you in an entry-level job unrelated to your studies.
  • VET TEC, which stands for Veteran Employment Through Technology Education Courses. It's a VA program that can place you in a program to receive training in various technology fields, such as programming or software engineering. The VET TEC program doesn't deduct time or money from your entitlement, so it's essentially free to all GI Bill recipients.
  • Reimbursement for licensing exams. In many licensed professions, such as general contracting and cosmetology, there are fees (sometimes very hefty fees) associated with the tests you'll have to pass in order to receive your license. Your GI Bill can reimburse you for many occupational licensing fees.
  • The Tuition Assistance (TA) program, which is not part of the GI Bill but is available to most GI Bill recipients. It's a simple cash payment to offset the cost of pursuing education beyond a bachelor's degree. It won't cover the entire cost of a master's or PhD, but every little bit helps. Note that tuition assistance is only available while you're still in the military.
  • Tutoring assistance, which will pay you up to $1,200 to hire a tutor if you're struggling with a class that's required to finish your degree.

There are many other, less common GI Bill benefits that you can take advantage of — too many to list here. Check the VA guide on how to use your benefits for the most current list of options.

If you have no need for your GI Bill benefits, you can also transfer them to your spouse or child, but there's a catch: you'll have to have served at least six years on active duty and agree to serve an additional four years. Provided you meet all the requirements, your dependent can use all of the GI Bill benefits you were initially entitled to, minus any you've already used. The VA maintains a page with more information about transferring your GI Bill to your dependents.

The GI Bill offers dozens of different educational and financial benefits, many of which are underutilized. Students often cite finances as one of the biggest sources of stress in their lives, but by creatively maximizing your educational benefits, you can mitigate or eliminate this concern. As long as you follow the golden rules of government benefits — allow plenty of time and do lots of research — the GI Bill can take you almost anywhere you want to go.

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