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GI BILL® & VA Educational Benefits – What to Know & How to Go - Part 1/2

Education & Training

It must have been hard to envision in May of 1944, the ever-lasting effect The Serviceman’s Readjustment Act (commonly called the GI Bill®) would have decades later. This transformative bill has helped carve out what we know as today’s middle class. After over two-dozen conflicts the current iteration of the GI Bill® has undergone a number of enhancements courtesy of the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017 - known as “The Forever GI Bill®.”

Before we delve into what the Act entails, it’s important for transitioning service members to develop a blueprint for success to best leverage and utilize all benefits. These benefits at some private institutions of higher learning (IHL) across the country could amount to upwards of $200,000 in tuition/fees alone! Not to mention up to (dependent on IHL’s location or zip code/cost of living) an additional $155,000 in total monthly basic allowance for housing (BAH) installments over the course of one’s 36 month allotted GI BILL® educational benefits.

Over the span of six years, having led military veteran initiatives at an IHL in New York City, I’ve come to develop a key set of principles to increase the likelihood of academic success– a blueprint or battle plan of sorts to guide service members/veterans’ transitions.

PRINCIPLE #1: Failing to Prepare is Preparing to Fail

While working with veterans in higher education I heard heart-wrenching stories, having to do with a different kind of battlefield, one that for many student veterans may be a foreign one. It’s caused by hasty utilization of benefits without having conducted the proper due diligence into a number of critical factors at their IHL of choice - including the degree of military friendliness, mode/style of teaching, culture, job placement rate, and acceptance rate, to name a few.

These are only a few critical points worth investigating. You definitely do not want to find yourself in a situation where you have exhausted a good chunk of your GI BILL® educational benefits at one IHL, only to then realize it will not yield the career opportunities you were expecting. This becomes problematic when transferring to another IHL; many previously completed courses may not be accepted and you could fall short of completing the credits required to finish your degree within the allotted GI BILL® time. This means having to pay out of pocket or using loans to finish your degree plan. The good news is by planning far in advance of your separation date, as veterans innately enjoy doing, the likelihood of such a situation unfolding will be reduced greatly.

Here are a few concrete steps I recommend to address this potential pitfall:

  1. Consult with your Education Service Officer (ESO) while on base as to what factors are important to you, and create a list of potential IHLs you’d like to gain more information from.
  2. Use the Department of Veteran Affairs’ GI BILL® Comparison Tool to identify IHLs that fit your needs and to review said IHLs. (https://www.vets.gov/gi-bill-comparison-tool/)
  3. Review Military Times’ annual Best For Vets IHL ranking, prioritizing the areas that are of importance to you. (https://bestforvets.militarytimes.com/2018-11-20/colleges/4-year/)
  4. Review GI JOBS’ Military Friendly School ranking to evaluate how the IHLs you are considering measure up to other schools across the nation (http://militaryfriendly.com/schools/)

PRINCIPLE #2: “Hurry Up And Wait…” NO LONGER!

This is a phrase uttered in the military almost as frequently as “hi” and “how’s it going” in the civilian world. A tell-tell sign of how well IHLs provide services to their student veterans is whether they ever make them recall this dreadful saying. Once you begin reaching out to schools, whether it is by phone or email, pay close attention to how quickly you receive a response. If a school has the name and contact information of a dedicated point of contact for their veteran affairs/services department on their website, that is a good sign. What is a better sign is whether this individual answers the phone the first time you call and/or replies to your email promptly.

In my experience veterans of recent conflicts, while they possess an incredible skillset, tend to be highly critical of themselves; they do not look at what they have – instead they look at what they don’t have. For some enlisted personnel it can mean that piece of paper hanging in a frame on the wall. As a result, when they compare their civilian professional lives to that of their peers, they understandably feel behind. This is why it is critical to commit to an IHL that has a dedicated point of contact – one that prioritizes transitioning and returning student veterans. First impressions carry heavy weight – if a school does not give you good service when you are still in “shopping mode” as a potential student, chances are they will not provide a higher level of service once you actually become a student.

When it comes to planning the next chapter after separating from the military, I’m a firm believer it’s never too early to start. Most of the veterans who contacted me did so within a year of their separation date. Establishing and cultivating a relationship with the IHL student veteran point of contact is essential to ensure a seamless transition “from combat to classroom” and ultimately “from classroom to career.” I have included a list of questions to pose to the IHL point of contact in order to gauge their military friendliness:

  1. “How many student veterans currently attend your institution?" While not a rule of thumb, you would hope the more veterans attending an IHL, the more resources and support services that IHL allocates towards them.
  2. “Do you provide application fee waivers for military service members and veterans?”
  3. “Do veterans receive priority registration?”
  4. For private schools – "do you participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program? If so, what is your annual monetary cap and per student cap?”
  5. “Do GI BILL® recipients at your institution who are fully covered through educational benefits receive deferred tuition or a grace period while waiting on the Department of Veteran Affairs to render payment to the school?”
  6. “Do you have a fast-track admissions event strictly for military veterans?” At my IHL we had such an event entitled “Military Monday,” where the veteran brought official sealed transcripts and completed applications, and were issued a decision that same day. Letters of Recommendation, the application fee and the personal essay were all waived.
  7. “How many full-time staff members are employed in your veteran office?”
  8. “Do you have a veteran-specific new student orientation?”
  9. “Is there a designated Academic Advisor for student veterans?”
  10. “Is your IHL approved for the Department of Veteran Affairs fully-funded Work-Study program?”
  11. “Do you have a Chapter of Student Veterans of America? If so, how active are they?”
  12. “Do you accept military transfer credits from the Joint Service Transcript (JST) and Community College of the Air Force and if so, are they given equivalencies to actual university core and major courses or do they, by default, transfer in as general elective credits?” This is critical: The more transfer credits you receive towards your Bachelor’s degree, the more GI BILL® time you will have left over for a graduate degree/professional certificate. The American Council on Education (ACE), lets you pull descriptions and recommendations based on the course index number (http://www2.acenet.edu/militaryguide/CourseSearch.cfm).
  13. “Are the staff members in your Counseling Center trained on dealing with adjustment and service-related issues specific to veterans?”
  14. “Does your Office of Disability Services expedite or streamline its paperwork processes for veterans who provide their complete medical records?” This could be a long process to say the least.
  15. “Do you have a physical space on campus (i.e. veteran lounge) for veterans to connect, build trust, rapport and camaraderie?”
  16. If you are less than fully covered through G.I. Bill/VA educational benefits, ask what, if any institutional merit/endowed based scholarship exist exclusively for student veterans to help offset the cost of attendance.
  17. “Do you have a peer-to-peer veteran mentoring program?”
  18. “Do you offer a for-credit veteran seminar transition course for first-semester student veterans?”
  19. “Do you have a career fair, networking events and professional development workshops offered through the Career Services Department exclusively for student veterans?”
  20. “What non-profit veteran service organizations (VSOs) do you partner with and what are their missions?”
  21. “What are your overall acceptance, retention, graduation and job placement rates and what are these rates specifically for student veterans?”
  22. “Do you have a strong veteran alumni network?”
  23. "On average, how long does it take for your Veteran Certifying Official to submit education benefit requests (enrollment certifications) to the VA?” Anything greater than 7-10 business days is concerning and could delay your monthly basic housing allowance and book stipend.
  24. "Does your tutorial center have specific days and times exclusively for student veterans?"

Principles 3, 4, 5 & 6 continued in Part 2

If you have comments or feedback about any article, please email your thoughts to info@acp-advisornet.org.

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