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The following is a sponsored post from Medals of America. Heather Lomax is a contributing writer and media relations specialist for Medals of America. She writes for a variety of military blogs and is especially interested in ensuring service members have a well-informed transition back into civilian life.
Finishing a term of service should be a point of pride for any member of the U.S. armed forces. You have placed yourself in great company among a small percentage of Americans. Regardless of what happens from expiration of your service, you have accomplished something very few people have.
The transition out of the military is not easy for many. The question of what to do and where to go can be daunting, potentially pushing a veteran into a period of inaction. For this reason, among others, several programs are in place to assist soldiers transitioning out of the military into civilian life, such as the G.I. Bill. This bill was created after World War II, and one its primary purposes was to help pay the costs of college tuition for members of the military, an offering that still exists in the present-day, though its stipulations have evolved over time.
Because of the bill’s dynamic conditions over its history, there are many misconceptions about and mistakes made in regard to the GI bill that can impede progress. Being aware of these issues can help you prepare and plan for your own transition. Below are some of the most common misconceptions and mistakes:
Misconception #1: “The GI Bill is my only allowed form of payment for school.”
Many retired service members are under the assumption that the GI Bill is the only acceptable way to pay for school, and if they incur expenses that are greater than what is provided, it must come out of their own pocket. In truth, the same opportunities that are available to civilian students are open to military members as well, such as scholarships, student loans, grants, etc. Payments from the GI Bill do not affect other forms of payment.
Misconception #2: “The GI Bill will cover all my educational expenses.”
While it is true that the GI Bill will cover a large amount of the tuition and fees (if you meet specific requirements), the post-9/11 GI Bill only provides up to 36 months of assistance, so anything more than that will have to be financed through some other means. Moreover, any break that is taken during that time period will not be covered, which includes summer break. The original GI Bill did cover a full twelve months, regardless of summer enrollment, but after 9/11, the policy was altered to only include time of classes.
Misconception #3: “I won't be able to receive my BAH if I take my classes online.”
BAH, or Basic Allowance for Housing, is available to all military members when they decide to take classes, regardless of where or how they enroll. If they decide to finish their entire degree plan online, then they are able to receive half of the normal BAH; in order to receive the full payment, at least one “brick-and-mortar” class must be taken in person.
Misconception #4: “The GI Bill kicks in automatically once I leave the military and enroll at school.”
This statement is actually false on two accounts. First, the assumption that you have to wait until you leave the military altogether before receiving any kind of financial assistance is incorrect. There are many military members who take classes while still enlisted and receive GI Bill benefits at the same time (though this is often not the most efficient use of the benefits). Second, the benefits do not automatically start once you enroll. In some cases, your school might send your application and paperwork along to the VA, but you should always check to be sure this is the case. Otherwise, you must contact the VA directly and apply in their online portal.
Mistake #1: Using GI Bill benefits at a for-profit school.
Deciding to go to school is, in itself, an honorable pursuit and most educational institutions are typically highly-respected. However, the advancing of the internet and the existence of people hoping to turn a profit has given rise to several for-profit schools, which seek to profit off their students, which can include military members who’ve received fresh funding for school. These predatory schools thrive off of keeping students enrolled as long as possible while providing very little in the way of legitimate, widely-accepted academic credit. For this reason, it's imperative that you thoroughly research the school you plan to attend before enrolling.
Mistake #2: Using the GI Bill benefits too early.
If your dream is to finish your undergraduate degree and complete graduate-level work, one of the worst decisions you can make is to blow through your benefits in the first few years. The higher up the educational ladder you move, the more difficult it will be to get through the classes, so consider enrolling in a community or junior college to get your basics out of the way. Then, considering paying for a year out of pocket before tapping into your GI benefits. This way, you can use your GI money for when you most need it rather than spending it on an education you could more easily obtain on your own.
Mistake #3: Using the GI Bill for part-time enrollment.
Unlike other forms of financial aid, your GI Bill pays for time instead of classes. What that means for the student is that whether you spend three months taking a full load of classes or just one or two of your basics during the evenings, the time paid for is the same. Whenever you decide to use your GI Bill, take as many classes as you reasonably can to maximize your benefits.
Mistake #4: Not maximizing the benefits.
Your BAH is calculated by your zip code, which means it'll cover your living expenses whether you live in a town of 3,000 people in west Texas or central Manhattan. One of the biggest mistakes many people make is by settling for a school rather than reaching for broader opportunities. Most schools will accept or be lenient to service members, so go after your dream school and live in a part of the world you might not be able to otherwise. If you can get an extra $2,000 a month in living expenses through your BAH and are able to find an apartment for much lower than that, that's money in your pocket. Do the research, find what you really want to do, and make the most of Uncle Sam's money.
Clearly, taking advantage of your GI benefits requires research and attention to detail. Make sure you keep a notepad or book to keep a checklist as you work your way through the requirements. Write down any details you need to remember and are worried about forgetting. With adequate preparation, you will be able to work through the process without worry, and you will be quickly on your way to reaping the well-deserved benefits of your service.