Military Service Earns Educational Perks

Military ServiceLearn how to make the most of the GI Bill

By Dawn Papandrea, special to AOL Jobs

People who serve in the military make so many sacrifices to protect our nation, so it's refreshing to know that at least in the educational realm, Uncle Sam does his part to say thanks. As of December 2010, the Veteran's Administration provided more than 425,000 veterans and/or eligible family members with close to $7.2 billion to fund their higher educational pursuits via the Post-9/11 GI Bill. And 270,666 active duty member students used the Montgomery GI benefits in 2009-2010.

Of course, when it comes to actually taking advantage of such benefits, it can be a long and complicated process full of paperwork, with lots of waiting. Instead of letting that become a deterrent to a very affordable – or possibly even free – education, learn how to push past the red tape and get started on your educational journey. Here's how:

Get on top of paperwork

Before you apply for the Post-9/11 GI Bill, you'll need to get at least two important documents in hand, says Dr. Don Lombardi, the faculty liaison for Hoboken, N.J.-based Stevens Institute of Technology Veterans Office. First, "when people are discharged from the military, they should be sure to keep a copy of DD Form 214 (which is the Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty)," says Lombardi. In addition, prospective students who are veterans should go to to obtain a certificate of eligibility (COE). This will indicate your eligibility to receive VA benefits. "It's your passport to education," he says.

When you're early on in the process and perhaps still unsure of which school you might want to attend, you can also utilize the resources available through organizations like American Veterans, suggests James King, the director of admissions for M.B.A. programs at the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. "AMVETS has representatives that have been through the process and can help you get the paperwork taken care of," he says.

And he should know. King, a 22-year Navy veteran, completed his own master's degree online funded by the G.I. Bill through W.P. Carey School of Business while he was still actively serving in the military."You have to do everything right. To avoid mistakes, fill everything out, but save it, and have someone else review it before you submit it," King suggests.

Do some school investigation

When seeking a college as a military member or veteran, it's in your best interest to choose a school that can support and assist you with the complexities of the GI Bill and other military aid programs. For starters, look for those that are designated "yellow ribbon" schools (there are approximately 700 of them, including Stevens Institute and Arizona State University), which is kind of a military-friendly seal of approval. "The Yellow Ribbon Program schools take the GI Bill, but the school and government supplement the difference, so that students can go to school for free," explains Lombardi.

In other words, because the GI Bill will only fund tuition expenses up to the highest public in-state undergraduate tuition rate, the Yellow Ribbon GI Education Enhancement Program allows an institution to volunteer to contribute up to 50 percent of any additional expenses, and VA will match the same amount as the institution.

Next, "look for a school that is veteran friendly school beyond what the website says," says Lombardi. In other words, get on the phone and ask the following questions:

  • Is there a faculty member who's a veteran who knows the terminology and process? And how many military students are currently enrolled?
  • Is there someone who can immediately give answers about eligibility?
  • Is there a veteran's certification officer on staff to help get your paperwork done?

"If the people at the school aren't helping, that should be the first sign that you should look at another school," says Lombardi. King agrees, emphasizing that military students should immediately reach out to the veteran benefits counselor on campus to make sure he or she can address all of your concerns.

Other things to know

Did you know that if you're on active duty and you have a spouse or child who wants to go to college, that you may be eligible to transfer the benefit to your child? Known as TEB (transfer of post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to dependents), this benefit became available in 2009. If this sounds like an option you'd like to pursue, learn more about the eligibility requirements through the VA.

College entrance exams can be pricey, but you may be able to get your money back. When King decided to pursue his master's in business administration, the VA reimbursed him the fees for taking the GMAT. Other exams that may be covered include SAT, GRE, CLEP, and LSAT.

Applying for VA benefits is not a time-sensitive process, notes King, so you can get started as soon as you decide on which school you'd like to attend (or at least have narrowed down your choices). Of course, when applying to college or other programs of study, you'll need to pay attention to school deadlines, he adds.

The Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB) provides up to 36 months of education benefits, but it doesn't necessarily have to be at a traditional four-year college. Funds can be applied to degree and certificate programs, flight training, apprenticeship/on-the-job training and correspondence courses.

Next:Military Families Week

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