How Veterans Can Take Advantage of Their GI Bill Funds
If you’re a military veteran, you’ve probably heard of the GI Bill. It offers benefits to veterans and some active duty service members, including payment of tuition, a housing stipend in the city where you attend school, and more.
Even better, benefits received from the GI Bill aren’t taxable. You don’t have to pay taxes on them or claim them as income on your tax return.
Of course, you may be wondering how to access your GI Bill funds. Plus, how can you make the best use of the funds you receive? Read on to learn everything you need to know about putting your GI Bill benefits to good use.
What is the GI Bill?
The first version of the GI Bill was introduced immediately after World War II. At the time, it included education and vocational benefits, unemployment pay, and home loan guaranty.
The bill has continued to change with the times, and the current version is called the Post-9/11 GI Bill. In August 2020, a portion of the new Forever GI Bill will go into effect. Let’s take a quick look at the current benefits:
Included in the Post-9/11 GI Bill are payment of tuition and fees, a monthly housing allowance, and a stipend for textbooks and other supplies for up to 36 months. You’re eligible for these benefits if you’ve served on active duty for at least 90 days since September 10, 2011.
You can use the GI Bill while still on active duty, if you meet minimum service requirements. However, it’s important to note that you won’t receive the monthly housing allowance from the GI Bill on top of the housing allowance the military is already supplying. This means your GI Bill benefits will amount to less than they will after your service is complete.
What percentage of benefits will I receive?
So, do you automatically qualify for full benefits? Not quite. The amount of time you spent on active duty determines what percentage of the benefits you’ll receive. It looks like this:
- 100%: 36 months or more, OR at least 30 consecutive days of service before being discharged due to service-related disability
- 90%: At least 30 months (less than 36 months)
- 80%: At least 24 months (less than 30 months)
- 70%: At least 18 months (less than 24 months)
- 60%: At least 12 months (less than 18 months)
- 50%: At least six months (less than 12 months)
- 40%: At least 90 days (less than six months)
- 0%: Less than 90 days
With the upcoming Forever GI Bill, these percentages will change. In August 2020, service members with 90 days to six months of service will qualify for 50% of total benefits (instead of 40%). Service members with at least six months of service will be eligible for 60% of benefits (up from 50%).
Now you know what benefits you can receive from the GI Bill. But how do you get them?
How to Apply for the GI Bill
Apply at a nearby VA regional office or online. If you prefer to have the application mailed to you, call 1-888-GI BILL- 1 (888-442-4551).
You’ll answer questions about your military and educational background, as well as the school you’d like to attend. In addition, you will need to supply your bank account and Social Security numbers. Required paperwork may include transcripts (if applicable) and discharge paperwork or a copy of current orders.
Next Step: Certificate of Eligibility
After you apply for benefits, the VA will send you a certificate of eligibility. The certificate explains exactly what you’re eligible to receive. You’ll give it to your school when you enroll.
It can take a while for the VA to issue your certificate (a month or longer), so it’s a good idea to get the application process started as soon as possible.
In the meantime, set up an eBenefits account to keep track of your status. Later, the account will also help you monitor how much of your funding you’ve already used and how much you have remaining.
How It Works
Tuition and fee payments will go directly to your school. At public, in-state schools, you’ll receive full tuition if you qualify for full benefits. At a private or for-profit school, the national maximum is $24,476.79 for the 2019-2020 school year. Typically, this amount rises slightly each year.
If your tuition payments are ever late, your certificate of eligibility serves as proof that the money is on the way. You won’t be charged for late fees, bounced from classes, etc. because the delay isn’t your responsibility. However, it’s important to talk to your school in this event to ensure no mistakes are made.
Housing and Supplies
Meanwhile, the money for housing, supplies, and textbooks will be deposited into your bank account. These funds are usually deposited about 30 days after the first month your benefits begin.
The housing allowance is paid monthly, and the amount depends on the cost of living where your school is located.
If you’re taking classes online, you’ll receive half of the national Basic Allowance for Housing average ($894.50 monthly for the 2019-2020 school year). By taking at least one class in person (if possible), you can enjoy both the flexibility of online coursework and the cash benefits of attending school on campus.
You’ll receive your stipend for textbooks and supplies annually. The maximum is $1,000. In addition, if you relocate from a rural area to attend school, you’ll receive a one-time payment of $500. This payment is called a “rural benefit payment.”
Again, remember that these amounts vary based on the length of time you served.
Can I use my GI Bill benefits at any school?
Although you can use your benefits at many schools, you can’t use them at every school. You can use the VA’s search tool to look for GI Bill approved schools. You may also contact a school’s admissions department to ask if the school accepts the GI Bill.
Another helpful resource is the VA’s comparison tool, which allows you to learn about education programs and compare the benefits you’ll receive at different schools.
What if the GI Bill doesn’t cover the full cost of my education?
If the GI Bill won’t fully cover your education, you have another option. The Yellow Ribbon Program is an agreement some schools make with the VA to waive some or all of the costs not covered by the GI Bill, which cuts down (or even eliminates) the amount you’ll have to pay out of pocket.
Currently, about 1,800 schools participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program, including some Ivy League universities. You can use the VA’s interactive map to see which schools participate in the program.
To qualify for the Yellow Ribbon Program, you must have served 36 months (or be honorably discharged for a service-related disability after at least 30 continuous days of service). Active duty service members don’t currently qualify, though they will beginning in August 2022.
In addition, many participating schools limit Yellow Ribbon participation to a set number of veterans on a first-come, first-serve basis. Other schools limit it to graduate or undergraduate study. It’s a good idea to check with the school for specifics.
Other Uses for the GI Bill
Traditional college isn’t the only way to use the GI Bill. You can also put it toward flight school, an apprenticeship program, licensing programs, certification tests, and admission tests like the LSAT and the SAT. You can even use the GI Bill to pay for a tutor to help you with your coursework.
If you’re majoring in a STEM field, you may qualify for additional benefits. That’s because STEM degrees often take longer to complete. The Forever GI Bill created the Edith Nourse Rogers STEM Scholarship fund. The fund will give $30,000 to veterans entering STEM fields on a first-come, first-serve basis.
A final option is to transfer your GI Bill benefits to your dependents. To be eligible, you’ll need to have served for six years and be able to serve four more years after approval of the transfer. Alternatively, Purple Heart recipients can transfer benefits regardless of time served.
Final Thoughts: How Veterans Can Take Advantage of Their GI Bill Funds
If you’ve served at least 90 days of active duty in the military, the GI Bill will partially (or even fully) fund your college education. You can also receive a housing allowance, a stipend for your textbooks and school supplies, and more.
Accessing your funds is simple:
- Apply at a nearby VA regional office or online.
- Wait for your certificate of eligibility.
- Use the VA’s search tool to look for GI Bill approved schools and the comparison tool to compare the benefits you’ll receive at different schools.
Then, enroll in school and take advantage of the college education you’ve earned.
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