Make The Most Of Your Military Education Benefits

Have you ever found yourself watching a TV game show – answering the easy questions, scoping the gorgeous models (if you’re a guy!) and tallying the ridiculous amounts of money – and saying to yourself: “Heck, I could do that!”

Who would have guessed that, as a military Reservist, you would be eligible for cash prizes?

They may not be glitzy with catchy theme songs and shapely models, but the education programs available to members of the Reserve now pay big rewards. And if you want to capitalize on these programs, you don’t have to convince anyone that you would look good on TV. You just have to enroll in college.

Like winning on a game show, your success depends on how well you know the rules. The military offers a lot of education money, but it takes a knowledgeable servicemember to maximize the effects of that money.

MGIB Chapter 1606

Many Reservists learn about Chapter 1606, the Selected Reserve version of the Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB), as they are making the decision to join. This benefit is available to anyone who commits to at least six years of service in the Reserve. A Reservist who has met this requirement and completes initial training after earning a high school diploma or equivalency is eligible for the program.

You must use your benefit, however, before it expires. Servicemembers who became eligible for Chapter 1606 after October 1, 1992 have 14 years to use it. For servicemembers who have been called to active duty, the period of eligibility is extended by the amount of time served on active duty plus four months. Otherwise, your period of eligibility ends when you leave the Selected Reserve.

The benefit is a powerful one for any Reservist enrolled in a higher education program. Under Chapter 1606, the Reservist will receive a monthly “incentive” for up to 36 months while he or she attends an approved institution. This money is tax-free and can be used for tuition, fees, books, rent or any other expense. The money is intended to encourage servicemembers to pursue their academic goals, and it may be spent at the individual’s discretion.

Chapter 1606 probably was the most powerful education benefit available to Reservists until the introduction of Chapter 1607.

MGIB Chapter 1607

A new benefit was created in 2004 for Reservists called to active duty: the Reserve Education Assistance Program (REAP), or Chapter 1607.

The intent of the program was to provide a sense of equity between the Reserve and active components of the military. Since September 11, 2001, many Reservists have been ordered to active duty for extended periods of time, but their benefits had not changed significantly.

The benefits paid under Chapter 1607 equal a percentage of those paid under the active-duty version of the MGIB, Chapter 30. The exact percentage is determined by the course load of the recipient (a full-time student receives a higher amount than a half-time student, for example) and the amount of time served on active duty since September 11, 2001.

In many ways, the Chapter 1607 benefit is similar to the Chapter 1606 benefit. It can be used at the same institutions, it lasts for the same period of time, and the money is for the use of the Reservist who receives it. The biggest difference is that the REAP generally offers more money.

1606 Or 1607: Choosing Your Chapter

A Reservist who qualifies for both Chapters 1606 and 1607 may choose the most helpful benefit. The choice may seem simple at first glance, but two aspects of the new benefit make a decision somewhat more complicated.

First, the benefit under Chapter 1607 can be retroactively applied for Reservists who met the qualifications for the program before the law was enacted in late 2004. For example, if you were ordered to active duty in support of the mission in Afghanistan from January 2002 to January 2003 and then you attended a university from January 2003 to January 2004 while using your Chapter 1606 benefit, you can now file to receive the difference between the two Chapters for the period you were enrolled in school.

Second and perhaps more important, even though only 36 months of benefits may be claimed under each Chapter, a Reservist can claim a combined 48 months of benefits. For example, a servicemember can use up to 36 months of Chapter 1606 and 12 months of 1607 or vice versa.

If you are eligible for both benefits, you will need to consider the consequences of your choice.

For example, if you are eligible for both Chapters and attending school but you know that you will remain eligible for only eight more months, you will probably want to use the REAP benefit. Similarly, if your ultimate goal is to complete only four semesters, or 18 months, of college, and if you are certain that you will not later use more education benefits, you should also choose to collect under Chapter 1607. In these circumstances, you do not need to worry about long-term benefits, but rather you want to maximize the money you receive during the short-term.

On the other hand, you may be just starting school with the dream of becoming a medical doctor. If you qualify for both benefits, you may want to start with the Selected Reserve benefit for 12 months before switching over to the higher-paying REAP benefit. This way, you are receiving more money as the cost of your education increases, and you can receive education benefits for the maximum 48 months.

If you are considering applying for a retroactive application of Chapter 1607, these considerations are especially important. If you have used 20 months of Chapter 1606 benefits, you want to receive at least eight months of those benefits under REAP if you are eligible. Otherwise, you will be able to receive only 28 months of the higher-paying benefit going forward before your reach your 48-month combined limit.

Remember that the benefit under Chapter 1607 is a percentage of the Chapter 30 benefit for the same time period, and the amount of the MGIB often is increased annually. You should not postpone your education to collect more money, but be aware that the amounts you will receive likely will be higher in the future than they would have been in the past.

Saving Time And Money

The best news is that the MGIB is only one of the education benefits you enjoy as a Reservist. Some of the benefits offered by the military will help you save money simply by allowing you to save time in school. The difference between starting college as a freshman and a sophomore can mean saving thousands of dollars on your education.

One of these benefits is your military transcript. Every servicemember who has completed initial training has a transcript of recommended college credit.

The American Council on Education (ACE) reviews military training programs and translates those programs into college terms. For example, ACE may examine a squad leader’s course and determine that the lessons learned are comparable to those learned in a college course on management worth three college credits. If you attend that course, you will find those three credits on your military transcript.

Your transcript is readily available online or through your command, but it may require some effort on your part. If you obtain a transcript that omits some of your experiences, you may need to provide proof of your attendance so those experiences can be translated into recommended credits. Similarly, you may need to persuade your school to accept the credits on your transcript. Although ACE credits are acknowledged at more than 1,200 institutions, they are only recommendations from ACE to your school.

The end result: You may find that you are further ahead in your education than you would have guessed. And every credit the school accepts as a “transfer” from the military is a credit for which you need not pay.

The Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Educational Support (DANTES) also saves you time and money by providing tests at no charge to the servicemember. If a Reservist is interested in applying to a university that requires an SAT or ACT assessment test, DANTES will pay for this test. In addition, a Reservist can take tests worth college credit. For example, DANTES offers College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) tests accepted as credit by nearly 3,000 colleges and universities.

You may find other sources of funding arising from your service. Some aid, such as certain state-funded grants, may be available only to veterans and servicemembers. In addition, you may find scholarships specifically targeted to a military population.

Some servicemembers get so caught up in their military benefits that they forget about non-military benefits. There are many low-interest loans, grants and scholarships intended to help students pay for college. Some of this aid is based on merit (i.e. how well you perform in school) and some is need-based. Perhaps some of these civilian programs can help in addition to your military benefits.

The world of education also is a world of opportunity for Reservists. Several resources are available to help you pursue your educational goals. Start soon, finish early and put your degree to work for your future.

Sean-Michael Green is a consultant and speaker on higher education and the military. A former enlisted Marine, he holds degrees from the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University. He is the author of “Marching to College: Turning Military Experience into College Admissions” (Random House 2004) and the forthcoming “What I Learned in College: A Year in the Ivy League.” For more information, visit Linkedin.com/in/SeanMichaelGreen.

Institutional Training

Basic monthly rates for Chapters 1606 and 1607, effective 10/1/06:

Fulltime education 3/4-time education 1/2-time education 1/4-time or less education
1606 benefit $309.00 $231.00 $153.00 $77.25
1607 benefit w/ 90-364 days consec. service $430.00 $322.50 $215.00 $107.50*
1607 benefit w/ 1-2 years consec. service $645.00 $483.75 $322.50 $161.25*
1607 benefit w/ 2+ years consec. service $860.00 $645.00 $430.00 $215.00*

* tuition and fees only

Internet Resources

By Sean-Michael Green