If you’re transitioning out of the military, chances are you’ve gotten countless handouts and PowerPoint presentations on the Post-9/11 GI Bill by now. Be honest, you slept through them, didn’t you?
We’re here to help.
We asked your fellow veterans who have used the GI Bill for their best tips, lessons learned and things they wished they’d known when they were in your shoes. Here’s what they said.
1. Know what you’re entitled to
The amount of money you receive toward your postsecondary education is determined by how long you served active duty after Sept. 11, 2001.
You have to serve at least 90 days to be eligible at all, and if you served less than 6 months, you’ll only get 40 percent of the benefit. That eligibility percentage increases gradually with time-in-service, maxing out at 100 percent eligibility for people who served 36 months or more.
Air Force veteran Mike Molitoris said the first thing you should do if you’re interested in using the GI Bill is get your official certificate of eligibility from the Veterans Affairs Department, “so you know what you’re dealing with.”
In Molitoris’ case, he is eligible for the benefit at the 90-percent rate, meaning he gets 90 percent of the total $23,671.94 in tuition and fees and 90 percent of the housing and textbook stipends that also come with the Post-9/11 GI Bill. He is currently using the benefit to get his second master’s degree from Creighton University.
Getting that certificate of eligibility, or COE, is key; you’ll need it to use your GI Bill benefits at any school.
“Processing times may delay the delivery of the COE and the sooner they request it, the better,” said David Woods, a former Army combat medic. Woods will be graduating with bachelor’s degrees in political science and Spanish from Georgia Southern University in December. “There are many instances where veterans attempt to enroll, and have not requested their COE, and this delays their start date for their education.”
One other thing to remember is that if you got out of the military before 2013, like Molitoris did, you have 15 years after your last 90 days on active duty to use your GI Bill benefits because they will expire. That expiration date was removed for anyone who left the military after Jan. 1, 2013 under the Forever GI Bill, passed last year.
2. Talk to school counselors
Your VA paperwork can tell you a lot, but the human element can help even more.
Molitoris said that despite having his certificate of eligibility, he didn’t truly understand his benefits until he spoke with a representative in Creighton’s veteran benefits office, who was able to answer even his “stupidest of questions” and helped him come up with a plan to finish his degree before his benefits expire in May.
“I couldn’t stress it enough: Make the time, sit down with them and have them explain what you’re getting involved with — how it works and so forth,” he said.
3. Maintain an active e-benefits account
Do your future self a favor: Take a trip to your local VA benefits office and make sure your e-benefits account is active. That can save you a lot of hassle down the road, said Army veteran Rashaad Ingram.
Veterans can access any of their military service information, along with benefits claims and health records on the site. This is helpful for keeping track of your GI Bill benefits and how much you have left, said Ingram, who is in the last few weeks of a master’s program in nonprofit management at Northeastern University.
“Having a login will spare you a few weeks of having to get things figured out,” he said.
4. Knock out credits before you start school
Another tip Ingram has for prospective GI Bill users is to knock out college credits before you even start college through credit-bearing exams, such as the CLEP test.
A recent study by College Board, creator of the CLEP test, showed service members who took at least one test were 12 percent more likely to earn a degree. Ingram used CLEP — free to service members under DANTES — to earn 16 credits, which allowed him to complete his bachelor’s degree with some GI Bill money left to spare for his master’s.
He recommends all service members take advantage of CLEP, especially enlisted troops at the beginning of their careers, who may still have high school math and English courses fresh on their minds.
Woods pointed out that service members and veterans can, in many cases, also get credit for things they did in the service, so you should provide a school with your Joint Service Transcript. Most colleges will at least give you credit for P.E., he said.
5. Save for the summer
Once the upcoming spring semester starts nearing a close, you may be looking forward to a relaxing summer at the beach, with textbooks and exams the furthest things from your mind. But just remember: If you’re not taking classes, you’re not getting a housing stipend, so you’ll want to make sure you have enough money saved up to cover your rent if this is your plan.
Marine veteran Zachary Nola learned this the hard way while getting his master’s degree from Boston University. While he had set some money aside, he hadn’t given himself enough time to find a cheaper apartment that he could afford without the housing allowance.
“I settled for a crappy, over-priced one-bedroom,” Nola said. “I worked part-time at a bar, and it was just barely enough to support myself during those BAH-less months.”
6. Get involved
As you get ready for school, look into resources a campus has to offer you and ways you can get involved, such as veterans groups and local organizations.
Woods said these groups offer information, insight and camaraderie during the transition from service member to student “and will serve the veteran as both a connection to familiarity and access to experienced veterans who have already made the transition into higher education.”
Military Times contributor and former reporter Natalie Gross hosts the Spouse Angle podcast. She grew up in a military family and has a master's degree in journalism from Georgetown University.