Do you remember the first time you ever sat down to talk to a recruiter?
He or she probably told you about the benefits of joining the military. Your recruiter may have shown you a stack of small plastic cards with different benefits printed on them and asked you to pick a few that were important to you. Among the benefits, such as “world travel” and “leadership development,” there was a card that said “education benefits.” This card is really popular – most recruiters will tell you that education benefits are a key reason people enlist in the Armed Forces.
In order to take advantage of all the education benefits available, you probably elected to invest in the Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB). If you were on Active Duty, you paid $100 per month for 12 months. If you enlisted in the Reserve, you had to agree to serve a minimum number of years to qualify for the benefits. You decided that college was something you might pursue later on, and you made a significant investment in the idea.
But most service members and veterans do not return to college. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 339,742 veterans used their GI Bill benefits to pay for higher education in 2002. When you consider that more than 215,000 people leave the military each year and millions of people are qualified to use the GI Bill, it is clear that many veterans are not taking advantage of a good thing.
Each person has his or her own personal reasons for pursuing a college degree. The most obvious reason is the prospect of making more money. In 2000, the Department of Education found that men between the ages of 24 and 34 earned up to 54 percent more with a college degree than those with only a high school diploma; women in the same age group earned up to 88 percent more with a college degree.
What is the reason for the income gap between college grads and high school grads? For starters, a college degree indicates that you spent four years taking classes at an advanced level. Although the military surely provided you with more than your share of challenges, college is a challenge to which many civilians can relate.
College is also a great place to learn about your abilities and interests. If you are leaving the military, you may need to find your areas of interest so you can build a civilian career. Some military skills translate well into a civilian environment, but some do not. If you served as an air traffic controller, you can find fairly lucrative work in the civilian world. But if you spent four years as the loader of an M1 Abrams tank, you may want to build up your skills and knowledge in another area.
You have invested a period of your life and perhaps $1,200 for the MGIB in the hope that you would go to college. So if you’re still asking, “Why should I go to college?” the more appropriate question is, “Why wouldn’t I go?”
While most military folks know about the MGIB – more than 95 percent of enlistees opt to pay into the program – most service members don’t know how to collect this money.
Service members must meet several eligibility criteria to receive MGIB benefits. Your discharge must be honorable, and you must obtain a high school diploma or equivalency before you apply for benefits. You are not eligible for the MGIB if you are a graduate of a service academy and received a commission or if you were commissioned through a ROTC scholarship, unless you meet certain exceptions.
For the most part, you are eligible 10 years from the date of your last discharge or release from Active Duty. For example, if you separate from Active Duty in March 2005 (even if you go into the Selected Reserve), you must use your benefits by March 2015 or you will forfeit them. The 10-year limit can be extended in certain circumstances, such as if you re-enter Active Duty for 90 days or more after becoming eligible. You are entitled to 36 months of benefits if you have completed three years of Active Duty or if you were discharged for the convenience of the government after completing a specified time in the service.
For a complete explanation of all eligibility requirements and categories, study the GI Bill website.
The benefits available to separated service members change occasionally. Changes always take place on October 1, but the benefits do not change every year. The most recent change was October 1, 2004, when the rate for a full-time student jumped from $985 to $1,004 per month (see complete table of rates at www.gibill.va.gov/GI_BILL_INFO/RATES.HTM).
For approved college and vocational or technical school programs, basic payments are made monthly and the rates are based on your time in class or training. When you train or are in class less than half time, the Veterans Administration (VA) only pays out your benefits at the half-time rate. At a school where your one or two classes are cheap, you should get enough from the MGIB to cover them; if you take only a few courses at a really expensive school, though, it may not cover the full amount of tuition and fees.
For correspondence courses, you receive 55 percent of the approved charge for the course. Those in flight training receive 60 percent, and tests and license fees are reimbursed 100 percent, with a maximum payment of $2,000 per test.
There are a number of ways the amount of money you receive through the GI Bill can be increased. Your branch may offer a college fund in which a “kicker,” or an additional amount of money, is added to your monthly GI Bill payment. In addition, you may be able to make personal contributions to your MGIB. If you participate in this program, you will receive $1 for every $4 you put in for 36 months, and you can contribute up to $600 to the program. For example, if you put in the full $600, you will get an additional $150 per month in your MGIB for the full 36 months.
The Montgomery GI Bill is not just for Active Duty personnel. Reservists can take advantage of the Montgomery GI Bill Selected Reserve (MGIB-SR). Your Reserve or Guard component will code your eligibility into the Department of Defense (DoD) personnel system when you become eligible.
To be eligible for Chapter 1606 benefits, you must satisfy the following requirements:
You can’t be eligible for MGIB-SR if you elected to have your service in the Selected Reserve credited toward establishing your eligibility under the Montgomery GI Bill-Active Duty. You also are not eligible for MGIB-SR if you’re receiving financial assistance through the Senior ROTC program unless you receive financial assistance under Section 2107a of Title 10, U.S. Code. This program is for specially selected members of the Army Reserve and National Guard only. Check with your ROTC advisor for more information.
There is no restriction on service academy graduates receiving MGIB-SR. Service academy graduates who received a commission aren’t eligible under the Active version of the MGIB.
If you enter an Active status while in Reserve, your eligibility under Chapter 1606 will be suspended. You may be eligible, however, for the Active Duty version (Chapter 30) after your Active period ends. Thus, a Reservist reading this who suddenly decides to go to college should look into how to serve enough time on Active Duty to qualify for the higher-paying MGIB.
If you separate from the Selected Reserve, generally your benefits end the day you separate. If you stay in the Selected Reserve, generally your benefits end 14 years from the date you become eligible for the program. However, certain exceptions will allow you to extend your benefits. For details, Reservists should investigate the MGIB website.
While you may be eligible for several benefits from the military, you may only receive one benefit at a time. You may not use the same period of service to establish eligibility for both Selected Reserve and Active Duty versions of the MGIB. Contact the VA and discuss your options with a service representative.
On October 28, 2004, Chapter 1607 was signed into law. This new education benefit is for Reservists who were activated after September 11, 2001. Participants in Chapter 1607, unlike those in Chapter 30, are not required to pay into the system.
To be eligible for this benefit, a person must have served on Active Duty for at least 90 days as a member of specific operations. Payment amounts vary depending on the amount of time served on Active Duty. For example, a person serving between 90 days and one year on Active Duty will receive 40 percent of the full-time rate under Chapter 30, or $401.60.
Because the benefit is so new, the VA and DoD have not yet determined all the rules. Therefore, the information on the new benefit is sketchy at best. You can obtain the most recent updates on this benefit at GIBill.va.gov.
If you are on Active Duty, you can talk to your base education office or CO about how to start the paperwork. If you have separated, you will need your DD-214 – the paperwork you receive when you separate – and you will need to have it certified by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
From there, the process shouldn’t be too difficult. You will simply bring your paperwork to your college and present it to your financial aid office, registrar or veterans’ benefits specialist. They will submit your claim for benefits, and you should start receiving your benefits within a few months. You should only have to go through this process once for each school you attend, and the money will keep coming.
The money is for you to do with as you see fit. It isn’t paid to your school and reimbursed – you get it directly. If you are a student, you will get your government check every month for up to 36 months.
The education benefits granted by the military are incredible. With the help of payments from your MGIB, tuition assistance and other forms of military funding, you can receive an excellent education for only a fraction of the cost.
Once you’ve gained admission to college, you’ll find that your experience has fortified you with the strength and perseverance to go far in your academic pursuits. Beyond that, the impact of your military experience on your career – civilian or not – is immeasurable. No matter what path you choose, your military background can propel you to do greater things if you take advantage of it.
By Sean-Michael Green