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Veteran’s Complete Guide to
Making College Affordable

Funding School after Service with the GI Bill, Scholarships & the FAFSA

The Post 9/11 GI Bill is the most generous of all the GI Bills since the inception of the program in 1944. With the recent signing of the Forever GI Bill, it got even better for some veterans. But as good as it is, sometimes it is not enough to cover all the costs of going to college today. This guide covers two of the most popular GI Bills, the most common companion programs and other sources of educational financial aid not requiring repayment.

Expert Contributor & Writer

GI Bill Education Benefits for Veterans

Today’s veterans have education benefits and options available from two GI Bills and their associated programs: The Post 9/11 GI Bill and Montgomery GI Bill-Active Duty (MGIB-AD). While one GI Bill and its option are free, the other GI Bill and option both require opting-in and payment while serving to use the benefit after getting out. The associated program for each are the Yellow Ribbon program and Buy-Up program, respectively.

Post 9/11 GI Bill Requirements

Also known as Chapter 33, this newest GI Bill has a full entitlement of 36 months like most other GI Bills – enough for a bachelor’s degree if attending four nine-month academic years at a college or university – in return for at least three years of eligible service after September 10, 2001 in any active duty branch of the Armed Forces of America.

In addition to its eligibility to active duty personnel, members of the Selected Reserve, including the National Guard and Reserves from each military branch, also can acquire entitlement too. Theirs is a result of qualifying active duty service through deployments and mobilizations at the rate shown in the chart below. Types of qualifying service includes:

  • All Title 10 orders in support of named contingency operations, such as Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan: 1 October 2001 – 28 December 2014/Operation Freedom’s Sentinel (Afghanistan: 29 December 2014 and ongoing).

  • Certain Title 32 orders for the purpose of organizing, administering, recruiting, instructing or training the National Guard.

  • Title 32 service under section 502(f) for the purpose of responding to an emergency.

  • All voluntary active duty, except for medical care and evaluations.

As recent as February 10, 2017, Selected Reservists can claim eligibility toward their Post 9/11 GI Bill for serving under Active Duty for Training (ADT), Active Duty Special Work (ADSW) and Active Duty for Operational Support (ADOS-RC) orders after September 10, 2001.

However, basic training, AIT (Advance Individual Training), IDT (inactive duty for training), annual training, drill and funeral honors time does not count toward Post 9/11 GI Bill eligibility.

Once the minimum service requirement of 90 days (except for service-connected disabilities) is attained for the Post 9/l1 GI Bill eligibility, the servicemember has 36 months of entitlement they may use while still on active duty or once honorably discharged. For servicemembers not having at least three years of service, 36 months of entitlement is available at a benefit level less than 100 percent.

Benefit level percentage is based on a sliding scale tied to length of eligible service. The chart below shows the breakdown of service and the corresponding benefit level percentage.

Length of Eligible Service Percentage of Benefit Authorized
36 months or longer 100%
At least 30 months, but less than 36 months 90%
At least 24 months, but less than 30 months 80%
At least 18 months, but less than 24 months 70%
At least 12 months, but less than 18 months 60%
At least 6 months, but less than 12 months 50%
At least 90 days, but less than 6 months 40%
Service-connected disability with at least 30 days of continuous service 100%

Until recently, most veterans eligible for the Post 9/11 GI Bill had to use all 36 months of their entitlement by the end of their 15th year from date of discharge or lose it. However, for veterans who left active duty after January 1, 2013, they now fall under the new Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act, coined the Forever GI Bill, and will keep their Post 9/11 GI Bill eligibility for life.

In many ways, the Post 9/11 GI Bill is unique from other GI Bills; its payment structure is one example. Instead of veterans each receiving one payment per month, like the MGIB-AD and other GI Bills in the past, they can get up to three kinds of payments per semester.

  • Tuition and Fees

    The VA pays the school directly for tuition and eligible fees at the benefit level authorized for the veteran student. For students at the full benefit level, 100 percent of the tuition and fees at the resident rate will be paid if attending a public school; if attending a private or foreign school, the VA can pay up to $22,805.34 (2017/2018) per year.

  • Monthly Housing Allowance

    For each month in school, the student receives a housing allowance based on the zip code of the school, number of credits taken and benefit level. On average across the nation, it is about $1,300 per month. Amounts are usually higher if attending school on either the East or West Coasts.

  • Book Stipend

    Once each semester while in school, the student receives a payment that can be used for books, supplies or anything the student chooses to buy. It is based on $41.67 per credit and has a $1,000 academic yearly cap. It usually is enough for two 12-credit semesters per school year.

Under the Choice Act, a “covered individual” as a student, is considered a resident (and hence would get charged the resident tuition and fee rate) if s/he is:

  • eligible for the Post 9/11 GI Bill

  • enrolled in school within three years of discharge

  • going to school in the same state where they live, regardless if a legal resident of that state or not.

To be approved by the VA, schools must charge the resident rate for covered individuals. Students not meeting covered individual requirements are charged the non-resident rate (and may qualify for the Yellow Ribbon Program as explained in that section below).

To get paid by the Post 9/11 GI Bill, veterans must take at least 51 percent of the number of credits their school considers full-time. For example, if a school considers 12 credits as full-time, then a veteran must take at least seven credits per semester to get paid from their Post 9/11 GI Bill. This minimum number of credits can vary between schools.

Veterans meeting this requirement can start using their Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits by submitting VA Form 22-1990 well ahead of registering for school. An application can be submitted online, by mail or in person at one of the VA Regional Offices. Submission by mail or in person requires printing and filling out the form. Once the VA has processed the application, the student is notified of its decision by letter called a Certificate of Eligibility (COE) which usually includes the GI Bill authorized to use and at what benefit level. Students must take their COE approval letter with them when registering at their school as a GI Bill student.

The Yellow Ribbon Program

The Yellow Ribbon program may only be used in conjunction with the Post 9/11 GI Bill. Consequently, the Yellow Ribbon program cannot be used as a standalone program. The Yellow Ribbon program is only applicable to student veterans at the 100 percent benefit level attending a degree-granting college or university.

Students benefiting the most from the program are those attending private schools and students classified as non-residents. In the case of private schools, not all tuition is covered due to the private school yearly tuition cap of $22,805.34. Some schools charge that much for one semester.

In the case of non-resident students, the VA can only pay up to the resident rate, leaving an unpaid difference between what the VA pays and what the school charges in non-resident tuition. However, if accepted into a school’s Yellow Ribbon Program, part (or all depending on the agreed upon percentage of waiver) of the unpaid difference could be paid between the school and VA.

The Yellow Ribbon Program is elective in that schools may choose to participate or not. Schools choosing to participate have an agreement with the VA stating:

  • the percentage of unpaid difference of tuition they will waiver

  • the maximum number of students in the program at any one time

  • a yearly monetary cap per student (if any)

  • majors covered and at what degree level.

A school can waiver up to 50 percent of the unpaid difference in tuition; the VA will pay an equal amount (on top of the tuition they already paid) making it possible for the student to have zero out-of-pocket costs. If the school chooses to waiver a lesser percentage, the VA will end up paying less too and the student would have some out-of-pocket expense.

If eligible for the Yellow Ribbon Program, a student would apply for it when registering for classes as a GI Bill student. It is the responsibility of the school to notify the student if s/he were chosen for the Yellow Ribbon program or not.

Montgomery GI Bill – Active Duty (MGIB-AD)

Also known as Chapter 30, the MGIB-AD was enacted in 1984 and named after its creator Gillespie “Sonny” Montgomery (Rep – Mississippi). While there are four categories of eligibility, most veterans having this GI Bill fall under Category 1 – first entered active duty after June 30, 1985.

From 1984 to 2009 when the Post 9/11 GI Bill was first enacted, the MGIB-AD was the GI Bill to have. Unlike its newer cousin the Post 9/11 GI Bill – free just for serving – new enlistees had to pay for the MGIB-AD at the rate of $100 a month for the first 12 months of service paid through payroll deductions. In return, they received 36 months of entitlement for three years of more of service. For service less than three years, GI Bill entitlement was usually awarded at the rate of one month of entitlement for each month of qualifying service.

While frequently overshadowed by the newer Post 9/11 GI Bill, the MGIB-AD is a viable source of veteran financial aid even yet today. Right now, it pays a full-time student with three years or more of eligible service $1,857 (2016/2017 rate) per month while in school. For students with less than three years of service, the full-time rate is $1,509 per month.

The student must pay their own tuition, fees, books and other education-related costs. However, entitlement must be used within 10 years from date of discharge or the remaining unused amount expires; unlike the Post 9/11 GI Bill, the 10-year deadline was not lifted by the recent Forever GI Bill legislation.

For eligible veterans, applying to use the MGIB-AD is the same as it is for the Post 9/11 GI Bill – submitting VA Form 22-1990. In return, approved individuals will get back a Certificate of Eligibility just like the Post 9/11 GI Bill. Unlike the Post 9/11 GI Bill, there isn’t a minimum number of credits that must be taken per term to use the MGIB-AD. However, the monthly amount received from this GI Bill is directly related to the number of credits taken.

Some servicemembers coming out of the military today have both the MGIB-AD and Post 9/11 GI Bill. When used correctly, they can get a combination of up to 48 months of entitlement – 36 months of MGIB-AD and 12 months of Post 9/11 GI Bill – enough to pay for a four-year degree and part of a graduate degree.

However, some veterans forgo the MGIB-AD and choose 36 months of the Post 9/11 GI Bill instead. This is because the Post 9/11 GI Bill has a better pay structure. If the student does not want to pursue a graduate degree, they can use just the Post 9/11 GI Bill. If they do want to pursue a bachelor’s degree and a graduate degree, they use 36 months of the MGIB-AD for the less expensive four-year degree first and then switch to the Post 9/11 GI Bill and use their additional 12 months of entitlement to pay for the more expensive graduate degree.

The Buy- Up option was (and still is) an optional program for servicemembers having the MGIB-AD. While serving, they could contribute up to $600 during the course of their service and in return would get up to $5,400 in additional money for college. The additional amount is broken down into 36 equal payments and payable as part of the monthly MGIB-AD payment.

However, the Buy-Up option cannot be used with the Post 9/11 GI Bill – only with the MGIB-AD. Those choosing the Post 9/11 GI Bill and having the Buy-Up option are not able to get their money returned even though they are not able to use it with the New GI Bill.

With either GI Bill, students can use entitlement to pursue:

  • two and four-year degree programs at colleges and universities

  • non-degree programs like certificates, certifications and licenses at vocational/technical schools

  • reimbursement of licensing and certification test costs

  • on-the-job training

  • apprenticeships

  • cooperative training

  • entrepreneurship training

  • flight training

  • independent and distance learning

  • reimbursement for college entrance examinations, such as SAT, GMAT, ACT, etc.

  • high-tech training

More GI Bill Information

Listed below are some links to resources veterans can use to help them make decisions in regard to choosing a school or pursing additional educational funding.

  • College Navigator

    A detailed school search program, along with good solid information on financial aid, preparing for college and other education-related topics. Choose a state, major, level of award and type of institution to get back a list of schools meeting your criteria.

  • GI Bill Comparison Tool

    By selecting data from each drop-down menu – military status, GI Bill, length of service, venue and city/school – search results are returned that let you compare schools to see which ones would be best based on your menu selections.

  • Post 9/11 GI Bill

    Maintained by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, this website is the place to go for basic information on the Post 9/11 GI Bill, such as eligibility, Yellow Ribbon Program and Transfer of Benefits.

  • VA Benefits Listed By State

    Search by individual states to see what a specific state offers in the way of education benefits to its veterans. Most states offer something with some states being more generous than others.

  • VA’s Choosing a School Guide

    A guide published by the VA that helps veterans choose a school. It filled with information like types of degrees, information to help decide on a major, types of schools, along with how to tell if a school is veteran-friendly or not.

Scholarships & Grants for Veterans

Scholarships for Veterans

Veterans having access to one or more GI Bills have a good start on the financial aid they need to pay for school. But as good as it is, shortfalls can occur. When that happens, veterans should apply for scholarships and grants and submit a Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA).

Veterans going to a non-Yellow Ribbon school as a non-resident or to a private school most likely will not have all tuition and fees covered by their GI Bill. Fortunately, scholarships can help fill that void and do not require any repayment.

There are thousands of scholarships available each year to veterans. While some are branch specific, others are open to most veterans.

Grants for Veterans

Grants differ from scholarships in that they are usually need-based whereas scholarships are often merit-based. Like scholarships however, grants do not need to be repaid either. They include:

Imagine America Military Award Program

Offers $1,000 grants to help fund career education. Applicants must be active-duty, reservist, honorably discharged or a retired veteran of a United States military service branch and in attendance at one of the participating career colleges.

Pell Grant

While not limited to just veterans, this grant is a great one to get if still an undergraduate. As it is part of the Federal Student Aid program, application is done via a FAFSA submission. The Pell Grant is offered from a school and because it is need-based, the amount awarded can vary. However, the maximum amount for the 2017/2018 academic year is $5,920.

FAFSA – Free Application for Federal Student Aid

  • Even with GI Bill benefits, veterans should still consider submitting a FAFSA too, because they may qualify for additional financial aid from a school in addition to their veteran education benefits.

  • The process starts by filling out the FAFSA application. The results received back show what financial aid a student is authorized to receive based on the information in the application. However, in the case of also receiving GI Bill payments, it can get confusing as whether that money needs to be declared on the application or not. Filling it out wrong can affect the amount of financial aid offered.

  • Because GI Bill money is treated as a resource and not income as far as Federal Aid is concerned, it should not be reported as income in most cases. However other non-education veteran’s benefits (such as disability) should be reported as untaxed income.

  • FAFSA applications can now be submitted as early as October 1st using income information from the prior tax year. The advantage of filing earlier is that colleges can send out their financial aid offer sooner, giving veterans additional time to compare schools.