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If you’re a veteran, the Post-9/11 GI Bill can help you pay for some or all of the costs of higher education. The funds available through the bill are open to those who served on active duty on or after Sept. 11, 2001, and can help cover the costs of tuition, housing, relocating from a rural area to be closer to school and there’s even a stipend available for books and supplies.
To be eligible, you must have served at least 90 days on active duty on or after Sept. 11, 2001. Those who received a Purple Heart on or after Sept. 11, 2001 and were honorably discharged are also eligible for benefits. Even dependent children of qualifying veterans may be able to pay for education with funding from the bill.
There are some limits to what’s covered, but you have options if the benefits won’t cover your whole tab. Here’s what to know.
How much does the GI Bill give you for college?
The exact amount you receive through the GI Bill depends on whether you attend a public or private school, how long you served and the number of credits or training hours you’re taking. Under the Post-9/11 GI Bill, veterans who served at least 36 months of active duty are eligible for the full benefit. However, you may still receive a percentage of the full benefits if you served less than 36 months.
The maximum benefit covers the full cost of tuition and fees at public in-state schools or up to $26,381 per academic year at a private or foreign institution. Students also receive up to $1,000 annually for books and supplies, a housing allowance based on the area’s cost of living and a potential one-time payment of $500 to cover moving costs.
What does the GI Bill cover?
The Post-9/11 GI Bill pays for many of the costs of attending school, including:
- Tuition and fees: The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will pay the full cost of in-state tuition and fees at a public college, but it caps the benefit if you attend a private institution.
- Money for housing: Students enrolled in school more than half time receive a housing allowance at the end of each month. The amount is based on the cost of living where the school is located.
- Books and supplies: GI Bill recipients also get up to $1,000 at the beginning of each school term to pay for textbooks and supplies.
- Moving expenses: Students who need to move from a rural area to attend college may qualify for a one-time payment of $500 to cover moving expenses.
What does the GI Bill not cover?
The Post-9/11 GI Bill might not cover all of your higher education expenses in some cases. Some examples of what it won’t cover are:
- The full cost of private or foreign school: Tuition assistance is capped at a national maximum of $26,38 per academic year at private and foreign institutions. The VA updates the limit each year.
- The full cost of an education in some cases: If you served less than 36 months, then you’ll receive a percentage of the maximum benefit. For example, if you served between 90 and 180 days, you’ll qualify for 50 percent of Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits.
- Additional education: The Post-9/11 GI Bill covers up to 36 months of college or career training. If you need more time because you transferred schools, switched degree programs or took on an advanced degree, then you’ll have to cover the costs.
- College closing: Your benefits won’t reset if your school closes or the VA no longer approves the school.
How long does the GI Bill last?
Under the Post-9/11 GI Bill, if you served at least 36 months of active duty, then you’re eligible for coverage of up to 36 months of college or career training. The 36 months of classes or training won’t have to be consecutive — but if your service ended before Jan. 1, 2013, you’ll need to redeem all of your benefits within 15 years after separation. There’s no deadline if your service ended on or after Jan. 1, 2013.
How can you maximize your GI benefits for college?
Even with the support of the GI Bill, you may still end up paying for some education costs out of pocket. But with careful planning, you can make your GI benefits go as far as possible. Here are some of the ways to do that:
- Squeeze as many classes in as you can: The GI bill pays for 36 months of benefits. That means the funds can be used to cover as many classes as you take in that time frame. Consider taking summer classes to squeeze in the most classes possible before the 36 months expire.
- Select a major and use benefits strategically: Identify your major early on, if possible, to help ensure that your 36 months of benefits don’t elapse before you’ve taken all required courses for graduation. If your 36 months run out before you’ve finished all of the necessary coursework, you may have to pay the remaining tuition and expenses on your own.
- Take online classes: Enrolling in online classes can save you on out-of-pocket costs such as gas, vehicle wear and tear, childcare and more. You’ll still be eligible for the housing allowance payments available through the GI Bill when studying online, though you’ll receive a reduced rate. If you take just one class in person on campus, while enrolled primarily online, you’ll be eligible for an even higher housing allowance payment.
How to pay for college after your GI bill benefits run out
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to using the GI Bill, so you should research your options and how to maximize your benefits. Start by talking with a VA counselor, who can provide free educational and career guidance. They’ll also know where to turn after your GI Bill benefits run out. Other options might include federal and state financial aid, scholarships or student loans.
Federal financial aid
It’s a good idea to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) before each school year. The federal government and colleges use information from this form to offer grants, scholarships, work-study opportunities and federal student loans. GI benefits won’t count as income on the FAFSA, which may help you qualify for federal financial aid. You can use the extra dollars to cover financial gaps if the GI Bill doesn’t pay for your entire cost of attendance.
Veterans Affairs Yellow Ribbon Program
The Yellow Ribbon Program can help cover the gap between Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits and out-of-state tuition, graduate school tuition or costs at private institutions. You’ll need to qualify for the Post-9/11 GI Bill at the maximum benefit level to be eligible, and your school will need to participate in the program, though it may cap the number of students who can receive the benefit each year or the maximum amount provided per student.
Several states offer additional tuition and education benefits for veterans. For instance, Massachusetts and Montana waive tuition for all veterans who meet eligibility requirements. Head to your state’s VA office for more details. You’ll typically find information about education and training under the benefits section, or you can call the office for help.
There are many private scholarships designed for veterans and children of veterans. You can find these using scholarship search engines, which let you customize your search based on your needs. Scholarships are often merit-based and do not need to be repaid.
If GI Bill benefits and grants and scholarships won’t cover all of your school costs, consider taking out a student loan. You’ll have a choice between federal student loans, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, or private student loans, which you can get from banks or online lenders. Federal loans tend to carry lower interest rates, more borrower protections and several forgiveness options, so pursue these first. Your FAFSA form will determine whether you qualify for federal student loans and how much you can borrow. If you need to take out a private student loan, compare loan terms among several lenders before deciding.
When used strategically, the GI Bill can cover a significant portion, if not all, of the expenses associated with degree or vocational and technical training programs that prepare you for a specific trade or industry. The bill covers the cost of tuition as well as housing, relocation, books and supplies. If you still have educational expenses to pay after your GI benefits run out, federal financial aid, scholarships and private student loans can provide more funding.