If you are or were an active duty service member wondering will the military pay for college, then the GI Bill is about to become your new best friend. But before you take advantage of this great benefit, it’s important to take a few minutes to understand the complexities.
Read on to learn about GI Bill college benefits and how to choose the best way to use them.
Will the military pay for college?
There are many different ways to qualify for GI Bill benefits that will enable you to go to college for free. 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 or use this comparison tool to see which is right for you. You can also read these additional resources to see if your desired school works with your benefits.
Montgomery GI Bill
The Montgomery GI Bill is available to those who served at least two years of continuous enlistment, have completed high school, and contributed $100 per month for their first year of active duty. If you didn’t make the $100 monthly contribution, you may still be eligible if you meet the criteria outlined here.
In general, you have ten 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 after 9/10/01 or 30 days of continuous service if discharged for disability. In general, you have 15 years from the last day of active duty to use this program.
Benefits from The Post 9/11 GI Bill are paid directly to your school and max out at 36 months. Check out this pamphlet from The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs 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:
The Post 9/11 GI Bill offers more benefits
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 out-of-state university. Just make sure your desired school participates with The Yellow Ribbon Program.
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. Try using this tool to search for programs local to you.
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 nearly $1,000 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 go to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
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 to do if you run out of GI Bill benefits
A confusing thing about these programs is that they sound like they only cover three years of education. Fortunately, the 36 months of benefits offered typically covers four academic school years.
That said, 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. Just make sure you turn in your application by the deadline 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.
Aim 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. Go to FastWeb to search for scholarships specific to your background.
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.
Get the most out of your education
Just like boot camp is a good foundation but not the basis of all your learnings in the military, a lot of education you’ll get in college happens outside of the classroom.
Therefore, it’s important to make sure you get the most out of your education by trying for internships, networking like crazy, and seeking out mentors in your field who can help turn your education into a solid career path. No one is going to do all this for you – but if you’re proactive this is all for the taking!
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