by Col. Bob Norton, USA (Ret)
The plug was pulled on military tuition assistance recently, but thanks to two Senators it’s been re-booted at least until September 30.
Even so, it may take time for the Services to re-start the program. And, TA monies will still be pared back by about 7.8% to match “sequestration” rules. That’s a Latin word for “stupid,” but at least some lawmakers are trying to craft ways to restore some of the more draconian cuts to military programs.
After this year, all bets may be off the table on TA. TA could be restricted by skill, dollar amount or the ubiquitous “needs of the Service.” What if you’re forced to use your Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits on active duty or are considering doing that now?
The new GI Bill pays up to the full-cost of attendance at any public college or university for full-time study, or up to $18,077.50 for study at a private school. The good news is that if you choose to go to college off-duty and pick the right school, you may not have to pay a dime for your courses.
You can also get up to $1,000 per year for books. Less if you take just one or two courses.
There’s a housing allowance, too, but sorry, you can’t draw your current housing benefit plus the GI Bill housing allowance at the same time.
There are some things to think about in planning to use your new GI Bill while still serving on active duty.
Given the pace of operations today, most servicemembers only have time to take 3-6 credits – one or two courses – at a time. Here’s how the “burn rate” works using your new GI Bill on a part-time basis. First, everyone gets 36 months of benefits under the new GI Bill. Public college tuition is fully paid based on 3 years’ active duty; lower rates for less active service.
The Dept. of Veterans Affairs (VA) charges entitlement based on the ratio of the student’s course load to the number of credits required for full-time training. For example, if a soldier pursues 12 credit hours (where 12 hours is full time) for a four-month long semester, VA will charge the individual one day for each day in the enrollment period (4 months of entitlement). However, if the same troop was only enrolled in seven hours, VA would charge the individual seven-twelfths of a day for each day in the enrollment (2 months and 10 days of entitlement).
In plain language, if a servicemember averages two 3-credit courses per semester, the burn rate would be two months per semester or four months for the year. At the end of the year, the military member would have 32 months of benefits remaining: 36-4 = 32 months of new GI Bill left.
Let’s say you want to take non-degree courses towards a civilian license as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) or Microsoft Certified Engineer. In those situations, benefits are capped at an annual dollar amount by law. VA charges entitlement based on the amount of benefits paid divided by one-twelfth of the cap amount. For example, if the annual cap was $12,000, an individual would be charged one month of entitlement for every $1,000 received.
If TA is suspended again and you’ve already transferred some or all of your GI Bill months of entitlement, are you stuck? Once a Transfer Account is set up, you can move around your entitlement or cancel it. If you transferred 18 months to a spouse and another 18 to a child, you can re-arrange the accounts; e.g., you want to be more competitive for promotion by finishing a degree, in this example you could take back 6 months each from your dependents. If you don’t have a Transfer Account, keep in mind that your Service owns ‘transferability’ as a carrot to induce you to serve longer, and you must have completed 6 years’ service and agree to serve 4 more years to have the right to transfer new GI Bill benefits.
Picking a School
Choose your college program very carefully. Avoid diploma mills and schools whose credits won’t easily transfer – think of your next PCS. Talk with your post/base education counselor, but then do your own homework. The American Council on Education has good tips on ‘student-vet friendly’ schools. For many, the best place to start is a community college. Many states allow students who earn an Associates degree at a community college to enroll automatically at the next level in a participating four-year state college or university.
Student Veterans of America
Your former battle buddies have banded together at over 700 college and university campuses for camaraderie, mutual support and to advocate for their needs with college administrators. Link up with an SVA Chapter and get some first-person advice on how to get in and get going in a good college program.
Getting Ready to Get Out
If you are wrapping up your service obligation, retiring, or in the crosshairs for being RIF’d, your options for transferring your GI Bill benefits can be tricky. The key thing to remember is, once you separate — voluntarily or otherwise — you’re once and done and can no longer transfer your benefits, if eligible to do so. For those who expect to be caught up in the draw down, you should consider transferring your benefits if you have no plans to use them. If you get RIF’d, you won’t have to serve the extra four years’ service after completing the required six years’ service.
Once you separate or retire, you’ll have 15 years to use your remaining GI Bill benefits. And once you’re enrolled in a program, the housing allowance will kick in if you served three years’ active duty. The housing rate is pegged to the E-5 With Dependents rate at the zip code where the college or university is located.
For more information, go to the VA GI Bill homepage or check out the Frequently Asked Questions page there.