What to Do When the GI Bill Won’t Cover College

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Written by Anna Helhoski
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Edited by Alexandra Rice
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Under the Post-9/11 GI Bill, veterans who serve at least 36 months of active duty are eligible for coverage of up to 36 months of college or career training.

That's enough for nine months of education every year for four years. Benefits also include a monthly housing allowance and $1,000 stipend for books and supplies. The 36 months of college or career training need not be consecutive. If your service ended before January 1, 2013, you have 15 years to use your benefits. If your service ended on or after that, your benefits don't expire.

Some vets can pay for an undergraduate education with the bill alone, but others need additional resources.

That’s because not everyone can complete an undergraduate degree in four years. The National Center for Education Statistics found that just 40% of college students who receive a bachelor’s degree do so within four years. And veterans don't always know how to maximize GI Bill benefits, experts say.

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When the GI Bill might not cover your costs

Here are a few situations in which you’d likely need to supplement the GI Bill:

Attending a private college

Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits cover the full cost of in-state tuition at public colleges, but only up to $26,381 per year at a private college.

What to do: Use the GI Bill Comparison Tool to see how far your benefits will go at different schools before picking one. If your college is eligible and you've earned 100% of your GI Bill, the Department of Veterans Affairs' Yellow Ribbon Program can provide additional funds.

Serving less than 36 months

Those who serve less than 36 months receive a percentage of the maximum benefit. For example, if you served at least 18 months, but less than 24 months of active duty, you'll qualify for 70% of Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits.

What to do: Find the benefit percentage you'll receive through the VA. This will help you determine how much of your tuition and housing costs will be covered and how large a gap you'll need to fill.

Transferring colleges and losing credits

More than one-third of students transfer colleges, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. And when transferring, students lose an average of 13 credits, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. If you lose credits by transferring, you might require more than 36 total months to finish a degree.

What to do: Use a transfer credit tool, available at most colleges, before making the switch. This will show you how many courses you've already taken might be accepted at a new school.

Transferring benefits to a spouse or child

If you transferred benefits to your spouse or dependent children while on active duty, you'll only be able to use GI Bill benefits by revoking the transfer.

What to do: Use the Transfer of Education Benefits website to revoke a transfer. If you don’t revoke the transfer, pay for college using grants and scholarships, work-study and student loans.

Needing additional time

If your intended career field requires more than 36 months of education or an advanced degree, GI Bill benefits won't cover all of your costs.

What to do: Calculate the costs of college for your degree or an advanced degree at different types of schools. Public colleges will have the cheapest tuition, but a private college that offers you more financial aid could be a better value.

College closing

If your school closes or is no longer approved by the VA, your benefits may not be reset.

What to do: To continue your education and use any remaining GI Bill benefits, you’ll likely need to transfer.

Closing coverage gaps

First, make sure your school has submitted your enrollment status to the VA so you can receive your full benefits. Then, if you have coverage gaps, fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the FAFSA.

The federal government, states and colleges use the FAFSA to award grants, scholarships, work-study and student loans. Your GI benefits won't affect your expected family contribution, so you can still receive aid, such as the federal Pell Grant. Veteran-specific scholarships and grant programs at the state and school level might require additional applications.

Experts advise student veterans to explore all potential programs and services created to help them pay for college. When Jude Prather, veteran services officer for Hays County, Texas, left the military in 2005, he was unaware of the Hazlewood Exemption Act, which provides eligible veterans up to 150 hours of tuition exemption, including fees, at public colleges in Texas. Instead, Prather paid tuition for his first semester out of pocket.

“That’s the case for a lot of veterans: In their hurry to get out of the service, they may miss some opportunities or benefits that are available to them that they’re just unaware of,” says Prather.

Several states — including Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Montana, South Dakota, Washington and Wisconsin — offer tuition exemption or benefit programs for veterans. Ask your state's VA for details.

Consider a student loan if the GI Bill, grants and scholarships don't cover all of your college costs. Maximize federal loans before choosing a private lender, because private loans tend to carry higher interest rates than federal loans. Private loans also have fewer protections and forgiveness options. However, depending on your credit — or your co-signer’s credit — you might receive a lower rate on a private loan than a federal one. Compare private loan options before making a decision.

No matter the scenario, speak with a VA counselor about your education options and the best way to maximize your GI Bill benefits.

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