GI BILL® & VA Educational Benefits – What to Know & How to Go
It must have been hard to envision in May of 1944, the ever-lasting effect The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (commonly called the GI Bill®) would have decades later. This transformative bill has helped carve out what we know as today’s middle class. After over two- dozen conflicts the current iteration of the GI Bill® has undergone a number of enhancements courtesy of the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017 - known as “The Forever GI Bill®.”
Before we delve into what the Act entails, it’s important for transitioning service members to develop a blueprint for success to best leverage and utilize all benefits. These benefits at some private institutions of higher learning (IHL) across the country could amount to upwards of $200,000 in tuition/fees alone! Not to mention up to an additional $155,000 in total monthly basic allowance for housing (BAH) installments, depending on the IHL’s location, over the 36 months of allotted GI BILL® educational benefits.
Over the course of six years leading veteran initiatives at an IHL in New York City, I developed a set of principles to increase the likelihood of academic success– a battle plan of sorts to guide service members/veterans’ transitions.
Having recently joined American Corporate Partners (ACP), a 501(c)(3) non-profit, as a steward of their free Veteran Mentoring Program (https://www.acp-usa.org/), I see now more than ever the importance of these guiding principles during a veterans’ transition, whether it be to an IHL’s or civilian life as a whole.
PRINCIPLE #1: Failing to Prepare is Preparing to Fail
In my work with veterans in higher education I heard heart-wrenching stories, stemming from hasty utilization of benefits without conducting the proper research into an IHL’s background - including the degree of military friendliness, mode/style of teaching, culture, job placement rate and acceptance rate.
These are only a few critical points worth investigating. You definitely do not want to find yourself in a situation where you have exhausted your GI BILL® educational benefits at one IHL, only to realize it will not yield the opportunities you were expecting. This becomes problematic when transferring to another IHL; previously completed courses may not be accepted and you could fall short of the credits required to finish your degree within the allotted GI BILL® time. This means having to pay out of pocket or using loans to finish your degree. The good news is by planning in advance of your separation date you can avoid this situation.
Here are a few steps I recommend to prevent this pitfall:
Consult with your Education Service Officer (ESO) to determine what factors are important to you, and create a list of potential IHLs you’d like to gain more information from.
Use the Department of Veteran Affairs’ GI BILL® Comparison Tool to identify IHLs that fit your needs. (https://www.vets.gov/gi-bill-comparison-tool/)
Review Military Times’ annual Best For Vets IHL ranking, prioritizing the areas that are important you. (https://bestforvets.militarytimes.com/2018-11-20/colleges/4-year/)
Review GI JOBS’ Military Friendly School ranking to evaluate how the IHLs you are considering measure up to other schools (http://militaryfriendly.com/schools/)
PRINCIPLE #2: “Hurry Up And Wait…” NO LONGER!
This is a phrase uttered in the military as frequently as “hi” in the civilian world. A tell- tell sign of how well IHLs provide services to their student veterans are whether they ever cause them to recall this saying. Once you begin reaching out to schools, pay close attention to how quickly you receive a response. If a school has the name and contact information of a dedicated point of contact for their veteran affairs/services department on their website, that is a good sign. What is a better sign is whether this individual replies to you promptly.
In my experience veterans of recent conflicts, while they possess an incredible skillset, tend to be highly critical of themselves; they do not look at what they have – instead they look at what they don’t have. For some enlisted personnel it can mean that piece of paper hanging in a frame on the wall. As a result, when they compare their civilian professional lives to that of their peers, they feel behind. This is why it is critical to commit to an IHL that has a dedicated point of contact – one that prioritizes transitioning and returning student veterans. First impressions carry heavy weight – if a school does not give you good service when you are still in “shopping mode”, chances are they will not provide better service once you enroll.
When it comes to planning your next chapter post-military, I’m a firm believer it’s never too early to start. Most veterans who contacted me did so within a year of their separation date.
Establishing and cultivating a relationship with the point of contact for veterans at your IHL is essential to ensure a seamless transition “from combat to classroom” and ultimately “from classroom to career.” I have included a list of questions to ask to gauge an IHL’s military friendliness:
“How many student veterans currently attend your institution?" While not a rule of thumb, you would hope the more veterans attending an IHL, the more resources and support services that IHL allocates.
“Do veterans receive priority registration?” Being able to secure the courses needed to fulfill your degree requirements in the proper sequence may make the difference between completing your degree expeditiously and falling behind in your graduation date and subsequent entry into the civilian workforce.
For private schools – "do you participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program? If so, what is your annual monetary cap and per student cap?” Having an unlimited monetary cap and unlimited per student cap is the ideal situation.
“Do GI BILL® recipients at your institution who are fully covered through educational benefits receive deferred tuition or a grace period while waiting for the Department of Veteran Affairs to render payment to the school?” True military friendly IHL do not expect or require tuition/fees payments upfront for those GI BILL® recipients fully covered.
“Do you have a Student Veterans of America Chapter? If so, how active are they?” With over 1,300 chapters nationwide, an IHL that lacks an SVA Chapter is a red flag but also an opportunity to serve as a pioneer in creating one.
“Do you have a physical space on campus (i.e. veteran lounge) for veterans to connect, build trust, rapport and camaraderie?” Empirical evidence suggests social support amongst military veterans to contribute toward improved academic retention, success and graduation rates.
“Do you offer a for-credit veteran seminar transition course for first-semester student veterans?” At the IHL I led military veterans initiatives, I founded a 1.0 credit veteran introductory course entitled, “From Combat to Classroom” which served as a platform for veterans to connect with one another, campus resources and industry leaders.
"On average, how long does it take for your Veteran Certifying Official to submit education benefit requests (enrollment certifications) to the VA?” Anything greater than 7-10 business days is concerning and could delay your monthly basic housing allowance and book stipend.
PRINCIPAL #3 Capital Astuteness
They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. As a GI BILL® recipient, you will receive a robust monthly stipend to use towards living expenses. This amount can be upwards of $1,000 to $4,000+ per month, depending on location. In my experience it has led to some student veterans treating it merely as “icing on the cake,” for example teaming up to rent a four-bedroom penthouse fully equipped for a whopping $6,000 per month.
In contrast I have seen firsthand veterans who used their monthly stipend wisely – saving or investing a portion, living modestly with roommates or with family rent-free. This lies on a spectrum and in the spirit of moderation a happy medium should be sought after. That said, I am still very much a proponent of it being closer to saving and investing rather than splurging and indulging.
This carries even greater weight when considering post-graduate employment. There is no disputing the strong evidence showing the tremendous success of student veterans, thanks largely to groups like Student Veterans of America (SVA) who recently evaluated outcomes of the GI BILL® as well as employability of student veterans. While the majority of veterans are able to secure meaningful employment and provide for themselves and their family immediately after completing their degree, the amount of money they will earn for their first civilian job out of college tends to be less than the amount of money they were making from their GI BILL®’s monthly housing stipend when taxes are factored in.
PRINCIPLE #4 Your Network is Your Networth
With over 55,000+ veteran service organizations (VSOs) across the nation, it may feel overwhelming to decide which ones to take advantage of. I’m going to share with you what I told the thousands of student veterans I assisted: only use those VSOs you will make a commitment to. If you do not treat it as a professional opportunity, you could do more harm than good to your reputation. After all, the military community, both across the nation as well as in large and small cities alike, is a close knit one.
Most VSOs fall under three categories: career readiness/professional development, mental health/personal counseling and community building. It is vital to determine which category is most important to you at any given time. It’s worth noting that VSOs often collaborate with one another on events and services. The category you prioritize may change depending on what goals you are working on, but you can expect to run into the same people more than once.
Networking presents itself in many ways. An example would be ACP AdvisorNet (https://acp-advisornet.org/), a program run by American Corporate Partners. This is a free online community consisting of tens-of- thousands of professionals across industries who volunteer their time as Advisors. Veterans can use this platform to pinpoint Advisors based on their location and message them for guidance directly, review questions posed by other veterans, read articles and review job postings. The key takeaway is this: regardless of what academic major, point in transition and/or employment status you currently are in, you could always benefit from using the services VSOs offer to bolster your network.
PRINCIPLE #5 Become a Master Juggler
Being a non-traditional student, chances are veterans have a number of priorities including family obligations, personal responsibilities, military reserve duties and active full-or- part-time jobs. While the GI BILL® affords veterans the financial support to not have to work in order to support themselves, many choose to work while studying anyway. This means they have to master the art of juggling (figuratively speaking of course). The good news is there are support systems to lean on to reduce stressors and cope when the intensity of the juggling increases. One piece of advice I used to tell veterans was to bond with professors.
Having served as an Adjunct Professor, I know firsthand the importance of students making an effort to connect, particularly at private institutions where class sizes tend to be smaller. This rule does not apply strictly to veterans but it is even more important for such non- traditional student populations to connect with their professors and provide them with some idea of who they are and their life experiences, so that if they need to be a few minutes late to class on occasion, the Professor has some context as to why. In my experience, both in talking to professors as well as having student veterans in my own courses, veterans offer unique perspectives because of their life experiences. Professors often rave about having critical thinkers in their classes as it enhances the quality of classroom discussion.
PRINCIPLE #6 Pay it Forward
In the spirit of “vets helping vets” it is paramount, as previous generations of veterans have done, to remain connected with your alma mater and the VSOs you benefited from during your transition. That way, other veterans who follow in your footsteps receive guidance and mentorship as they maneuver through this new, unfamiliar terrain. It’s important to bear in mind the power of networking both in academic pursuits and professional careers. Taking a fellow veteran and placing them under your wing is not only important from a giving-back standpoint but also is reciprocal in nature through the benefit received –a sense of gratitude and fulfillment.
Rather than go through all the changes made by the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017 (“Forever GI BILL®”), I’m sharing a summary put together by Student Veterans of America (SVA), the major advocacy group and driving force behind it: http://nvest.studentveterans.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Things-to-Know-About-the-Forever-GI-Bill_SVA-1.pdf
I hope these principles prove to be helpful as you begin your next journey, putting to good use your well-deserved GI BILL®/VA educational benefits, to secure the civilian job of your dreams! Feel free to message me directly on ACP AdvisorNet with any feedback or questions you may have!
I leave you with SVA’s motto:
“Yesterday’s Warriors, Today’s Scholars, Tomorrow’s Leaders”