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Your GI Bill benefits: Everything you need to know

GI Bill Benefits 004

 

What is the Post-9/11 GI Bill?

The Post-9/11 GI Bill is a generous education benefit for the latest generation of service members and Veterans. It includes payment of tuition and fees, a monthly housing allowance and a stipend for textbooks and supplies for up to 36 months. The GI Bill traces its history back to World War II when the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act was enacted to provide education and training, home loan guarantee and other benefits for Veterans. Revamped several times to aid Veterans of war and peacetime, the GI Bill as we know it was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2008 and went into effect the following year. Portions of the GI Bill were updated again in 2017 under the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act, better known as the “Forever GI Bill.”

Who is eligible for the GI Bill?

If you have served on active duty for at least 90 days since Sept. 10, 2001, you are eligible for Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits — whether you’re still in the military or have already separated with an honorable discharge. The amount of time you spent on active duty determines the percentage of total benefits you can receive.

Right now, the VA uses this scale to determine eligibility:

  • 100 percent: 36 months or more, or at least 30 continuous days and discharged due to service-connected disability
  • 90 percent: At least 30 months, less than 36 months
  • 80 percent: At least 24 months, less than 30 months
  • 70 percent: At least 18 months, less than 24 months
  • 60 percent: At least 12 months, less than 18 months
  • 50 percent: At least 6 months, less than 12 months
  • 40 percent: At least 90 days, less than 6 months
  • No benefit: Less than 90 days

Don’t worry about memorizing this, though, because it’s about to change in August 2020 when a portion of the Forever GI Bill goes into effect. At that point, the same 90-days-to-six-month window will equal to 50 percent of total benefits. Service members with at least six months and less than 18 months of service will be eligible for 60 percent of benefits.

Children or spouses of service members who died in the line of duty on or after 9/11 may also be eligible to use the GI Bill to further their education through the Marine Gunnery John David Fry Scholarship Program. These benefits are available at the 100-percent level to children between age 18 and 33 and spouses who have not remarried for 15 years after the service member’s death.

How to apply for your GI Bill

You can apply for GI Bill benefits online or in person at a VA regional office near you. You can also call 1-888-GI BILL-1 to ask the VA to mail an application directly to you.

The application process is simple, especially if you do it online. The form will ask you for information about your military background, education history and the school you want to attend. It also asks for your Social Security and bank account numbers, so make sure you have those handy, too. (While the tuition and fee payments go directly to the schools, the housing and textbook allowances go straight to you.)

If you’re feeling nervous about the process, you can also talk to the school certifying official at your college. This person typically works in the school’s registrar’s office or financial aid department and will be able to walk you through the application.

GI Bill certificate of eligibility

Once you apply for your benefits, the VA will send you a certificate of eligibility that spells out exactly what you are eligible to receive. This is the document you’ll present to your school when you enroll.

If your tuition payments are ever delayed, your certificate of eligibility acts as proof that payment is coming, meaning your school can’t charge you late fees or impose other restrictions when there’s an outstanding balance on your account through no fault of your own.

Keep in mind that it may take a while for the VA to issue your certificate of eligibility to you. In the meantime, you can log into your eBenefits account to keep track of things.

How much does the GI Bill pay for school?

The Post-9/11 GI Bill includes payment of tuition and fees, a monthly housing allowance and a stipend for textbooks and supplies.

For students attending public colleges and universities, the GI Bill covers all tuition and fees at the in-state rate, but it may not have the same reach at a private or for-profit school. The national maximum at such schools will be $24,476.79 for the 2019-2020 school year and generally increases slightly each year.

If the GI Bill doesn’t cover the full cost of your education, see if your school participates in the Yellow Ribbon program. This is an agreement schools make with the VA to split school costs not covered by the GI Bill, reducing or eliminating the amount students must pay themselves. Currently, only Veterans and surviving dependents of service members are eligible for the program, though this will extend to active-duty troops in August 2022.

A lot of schools participate in this program, including prestigious Ivy League institutions. To see if your school is part of the Yellow Ribbon Program, check out the interactive map on VA’s website.

Should I use my GI Bill while on active duty?

You can, provided you meet the minimum service requirements. But should you?

If you use your GI Bill benefits to pay for school while on active duty, you will not receive a monthly housing stipend from the GI Bill in addition to the housing allowance you’re already receiving from the military. Depending on which school you attend, that housing stipend could be worth as much as the tuition coverage and possibly more. Therefore, your GI Bill benefits will end up amounting to much less than what you would receive after separating from the military.

Still, the choice is yours.

The GI Bill housing allowance.

Your monthly housing stipend depends on the percentage level of benefits you’re eligible for and how many courses you’re taking.

The VA uses the Department of Defense Basic Allowance for Housing, or BAH, rates to calculate how much you will receive. Right now, this is the cost of living wherever the main campus of your school is located — not where you live — at the amount that an E5 with dependents would receive in that area. (Your own rank has no bearing on the total amount you receive.)

Under the Forever GI Bill, however, housing allowances will be determined by the location of the campus where a student takes the most classes. So, that means if you take classes at a satellite campus miles — or even states — away from the school’s main headquarters, your monthly stipend will better reflect your cost of living. The VA is expected to roll this out in December 2019.

The VA has already done a lot of the math for you through their GI Bill Comparison Tool. Simply search by school name or type and click on the results to see how much you’d receive each month.

A few things to remember:

If you are pursuing a degree entirely online, you will only receive half of the national BAH average. For the 2019-2020 school year, that amounts to $894.50 per month. Some experts recommend taking at least one class in person if you can, so you can get the flexibility of attending school online with the cash benefits of attending on campus.

If you’re attending school half time or less or are a dependent using GI Bill benefits that have been transferred to you from a service member, you are not eligible for this part of the benefit.

How to change schools with the GI Bill

Changing schools once you’ve already started using the GI Bill is much like applying for the GI Bill in the first place. You’ll need to provide basic information about your military service, education history and the school you want to go to, in addition to your Social Security and bank account numbers.

You can do this all online or in person at a VA regional office.

GI bill status and how to check it.

It’s important to maintain an active Ebenefits account so you can check on the status of your GI Bill benefits — how much you’ve used and how much you have left.

Transferring GI Bill to your dependents

If you’ve already finished your degree or just don’t see yourself ever going to school, you may want to consider transferring the GI Bill to your dependents.

To be eligible for transfer, you must have at least six years of service under your belt and must be able to serve four more after the transfer is approved by the DoD.

The DoD is slated to cap the transfer option at 16 years of service in January, though congressional lawmakers are working to kill the policy before it ever goes into effect.

If you are an active-duty Purple Heart recipient, disregard all of the above; you can transfer your GI Bill benefits to family members whenever you want.

A dependent child must be 18 or younger when the GI Bill benefits are transferred to them — or under 23 in special cases for approved programs. To use the GI Bill, the dependent must be 18 or a high school graduate.

If you decide you want to transfer your benefits, log onto DMDC milConnect to get started. At the top of the page, you’ll see a section labeled, “I want to.” Click on the “Transfer my education benefits” option and go from there.

Cool/alternative/creative ways to use the GI Bill

You have a little flexibility with the GI Bill in that it doesn’t have to just go toward a traditional education at a brick-and-mortar school. You can use it to take classes online or through correspondence.

You can get help starting your own business.

You can get a tutor to help you with your classes.

You can also use your benefits toward a flight school or apprenticeship program. Even licensing programs, certification tests and admission tests, such as the SAT or LSAT, are covered.

If you are a Veteran majoring in a STEM field — science, technology, engineering or math — you can apply for more GI Bill benefits, since many of these majors take more than the standard four years of college to complete. The Forever GI Bill set up the Edith Nourse Rogers STEM Scholarship fund that will give up to $30,000 to STEM students on a first-come, first-serve basis. Veterans and surviving dependents of deceased service members are eligible for this scholarship.

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