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For many veterans, the transition to civilian life and a career can be the toughest mission.
From a world of structure and constant guidance, you pivot to life in the big wide world and take on the responsibility of managing your own freedom every hour of the day – the very same freedom you were protecting while in the service. No one tells you when to wake up, what to eat, how to dress. Deciding how long to grow your hair and where exactly to put that tattoo you’ve been dreaming about is all on you now. The freedom to do what you want is yours, and so are the consequences of that freedom.
There’s no Career Development Program for civilian life.
That applies to your career and education, too. There are a million choices to make when it comes to deciding which degree to pursue and which university to apply to. There are job opportunities everywhere you turn—if you have the right qualifications.
As a veteran, you have all the benefits you need to get your schooling paid for so you can get those qualifications. You also may have a half dozen different benefits options to choose from. But which one is best? And will the university you’re interested in accept it? How do you find out?
Our post-service college guide for recently and not-so-recently discharged service members will help you find the degree you need to get the career you want.
Explore Your Benefits Options
Your Civilian Career Path Builds on a Foundation of Military Training
The truth is, your military service was where you started down your career path.
Your MOS and the training you received for that position started to lay the groundwork for some future profession. Maybe that gives you a straight line to follow: a Navy Hospitalman-8482 Pharmacy Technician has a pretty straight path into a pharmacy degree and career. But a Marine 0351 Assaultman might have to do a little more planning for a degree in fintech.
Other in-service college and training opportunities may have given you a boost in that direction, though. So, you’re not starting from scratch.
The Intangibles of Military Service Are Hugely Important to Employers
There’s also a set of benefits that come in the form of the character traits you develop through military service. No matter what your rank, billet, or branch, you come out of military service with a set of qualities that glitter like gold on any resume:
Military service delivers life skills that will serve you well in any career.
And you know what it’s like to be part of something bigger than yourself. You’ve been an integral member of a team and you know what it means for everyone to be counting on you. Maybe it was working as part of a ship’s damage control party. Maybe is was as an air controller talking a heavy transport loaded with troops down through a zero-ceiling landing. Whatever your role, your brothers and sisters in arms knew they could rely on you.
Put that character together with your formal military education, and you have an unstoppable combination of skills that are highly prized in any field, from medicine to cybersecurity. In fact, with a little planning, you can swing right into a job or a degree program almost as soon as you take off that uniform for the last time.
Don’t Be Too Quick To Use Veteran’s Benefits When You Can Take Advantage of Reservist Benefits
But hang on for a second. Before we start talking about veteran’s benefits, let’s get a brief reality check: most recently discharged service members aren’t entirely free and clear of their obligations to the military the moment they lay their hands on that DD-214. In most cases, your contract probably specified something like eight years of total service commitment: half on active duty, and half in the reserves.
While this is a little bit like being on parole, it also means you have some hidden benefits you can tap into before you start tapping into your official post-service education benefits.
Reservists and National Guard members also have their own education benefit programs to take advantage of.
Should You Stay in the Reserves After Discharge?
While you’re thinking over your education benefit options as a reservist, you might want to think about your big picture perspective on the reserves, too.
In addition to the education benefits you may be eligible for in the reserves, there are some other good reasons you might want to stay in even after your obligation is fulfilled.
- Part-time Pay Keeps Coming – Reserve drill pay isn’t necessarily a lot of money, but it adds up: in the Army Reserve, for example, if you put in your 4 years active duty and made at least E-4, it’s almost $6,000 extra in your pocket each year for one weekend a month and your two-week annual training. That’s nothing to sneeze at.
- Healthcare Can Be Covered – If you are activated for as few as thirty days in a year, you can get the same excellent TriCare health coverage that retirees and active duty dependents rely on.
- Keep Your Commissary and Exchange Privileges – The deals at the post exchange and base commissary beat anything you’ll find in the civilian world. So whether you are looking to save on groceries or that new big-screen TV, keeping your PX shopping privileges as a reservist might look pretty good.
- Earn Points Toward a Military Retirement – Military retirement is a sweet deal, but you already decided you didn’t want to put in your twenty on active duty. But military retirement pay and benefits are still on the table for reservists, so you can get the best of both worlds.
Finally, even as a reservist, you also still have access to regular veteran’s educational programs, too. So you can still use the GI Bill benefits that you earned while you were on active duty.
With every year of experience and every bit of formal training you get, both military and civilian, you become more valuable to the service. So when the time comes around to consider re-upping as a reservist, you might find the deals are even sweeter–kicker benefits, promotions, and other training opportunities are all on the table and could be negotiated into your next contract.
First, though, you have to figure out what part of the reserve you may be in.
By default, discharged service members who have some service obligation remaining are placed in the Individual Ready Reserve.
The Selected Reserve is the component eligible for most benefits.
As a good rule of thumb, if your reserve obligations include some regular drill obligations (monthly or annually), then you are probably eligible for some reserve benefit program. Those can include:
Montgomery GI Bill® Selected Reserve
The Montgomery GI Bill® can’t be used at the same time as any other GI Bill® benefit programs that you may be eligible for, and it offers less money than most. However, there may be circumstances in which this is a better option for you as a reservist than drawing down your regular benefits.
Service-Specific Kicker Benefits
In some cases, reservists can receive funding from the respective service kicker fund. Just like the active duty force, these are used as incentives in specific billets, so you’ll have to qualify.
Student Loan Repayment Program
Army and Air Force Reservists may be eligible for the same SLRP benefits that active duty troops are. This can be used to pay back your outstanding college loans up to a certain fixed amount. You have to have this benefit negotiated into your contract, however, so hopefully you were thinking ahead or plan to sign up for a longer obligation. Six years is the minimum.
Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education
All reservists remain eligible to use DANTES. This mega-directory of resources to assist service members in coordinating their education is invaluable for finding your way through other programs and benefits.
Read more about reserve college benefits in our Guide to Military Reserve Benefits for Education.
VetSuccess on Campus Offers In-person Counseling To Help You With Your Career Goals
Whether you are in the reserves or not, there’s an innovative new program that the VA put in place to help all vets, service members, and their dependents make the most of their college experience.
Even with all the qualities you bring with you from military training and discipline, it’s a tough transition for a lot of troops into college life. Dealing with a disembodied voice on the other end of a phone line, or trading unproductive emails with some AI auto-responder only jacks up the frustration level.
VetSuccess On Campus puts a helping hand right on campus for you. VSOC counselors are experts in deciphering all the ins and outs of VA academic support and benefits. But they also have direct experience and training to help you map out your career path and achieve your educational goals to support it.
VSOC started out as a pilot program on the campus of the University of South Florida in 2009 and has expanded to more than 100 schools nationwide as of 2022.
Anyone who is using any of the VA education benefits programs we cover here can count on having VSOC counselors on participating campuses.
If you’re on one of those campuses, it’s worth a sit-down with a VSOC counselor even if you think everything is going great already. They have a knowledge of VA support systems and insights into career paths and military training that might offer some up-side surprises for you. Maybe all it takes is a look at your JST to reveal a ten-day ABIC course you forgot you took. That one meeting with a counselor could help you test out of a class in your Initial Teacher Preparation requirements on your way to becoming a high school teacher. Or maybe they clue you in on the fact that Troops to Teachers program you heard was canceled in 2020 in fact got reauthorized in 2022 and may get you an additional $10,000 worth of support toward your degree.
Little kernels of wisdom like that are well worth a visit! And it may even be worth prioritizing schools that participate in VSOC when you are considering where you want to apply.
GI Bill® Benefits Are the Grandaddy of All Post-service Military Education Programs
The GI Bill®, of course, is the best known of all post-service military education benefits. Started during World War II, it gave a fresh start to millions of returning American veterans and fueled the educational explosion that made America a global leader after the war.
The program was so successful that numerous versions of it have been put in place after America’s other foreign conflicts.
Today, there are two primary GI Bill® programs that most veterans can take advantage of:
The Montgomery GI BIll®
Also known as Chapter 30 after it’s place in the U.S. Code, this program has been in place since 1985 and offers a flat-rate payment for college for up to 36 months of payments after discharge.
The Post 9/11 GI Bill®
Chapter 33 is a newer program designed to better serve the modern military veteran after the Global War on Terror kicked off. Passed in 2005, it is available to most service members who served on active duty after 2001.
Most veterans seem to agree that the Post 9/11 GI Bill® option is the easier option and offers better benefits.
It used to be that you had to pick one or the other of these if you were eligible for both. But, as of 2022, at least, court challenges have made it so that you can actually start using one of these programs after you have used up the other in some cases. In total, you can potentially access a total of 48 months of benefits between the two. That’s an entire extra year of college education benefits you could use toward a master’s!
Post-9/11 GI Bill® (Chapter 33) Education Benefits
To qualify for Post-9/11 benefits, all you need is a high school diploma or GED and to meet one of the following:
To receive full benefits, you must have served for at least 36 months and been honorably discharged. The exception is for those wounded in the line of duty, who receive full benefits automatically.
The program covers:
On top of those basics, certain other vets may be eligible for extras like compensation for moving expenses if you have to relocate for school.
Post 9/11 benefits can also be transferred. You always have the option of allowing your spouse or kids to use them.
Montgomery GI Bill® (Chapter 30) Education Benefits
The Montgomery program is older and offers fewer benefits. It is a bit more complicated to participate in and you have to plan ahead to use it.
To qualify, you must:
You have, in general, ten years to take advantage of your MGIB benefits after you are discharged.
MGIB has another unique feature that Chapter 33 does not. Known as Buy-Up, this optional program allows you to throw in up to another $600 on top of the required $1,200 contribution you make while on active duty.
Why would you want to spend even more money than you have to? Because you get it back, and far, far more when you actually start to use your benefit.
That’s because the government contributes an extra $8 for each dollar you contribute through Buy-Up. If you do the math, that’s an extra $5,400 in benefits you could receive over the life of your MGIB eligibility.
There are a number of edge cases where you could have MGIB eligibility even if you don’t tick all those boxes. These mostly relate to individuals who were in previous GI Bill® programs, or were recalled to active duty or became injured or ill before getting a chance to use their benefits. It’s best to check our full GI Bill® Benefit Guide for details.
The program covers a monthly flat-rate payment (at a maximum rate of $2,150 as of 2021) toward your educational expenses
As a dollar amount, that’s considerably lower than what Post 9/11 GI Bill® benefits can reach, but it does have the virtue of flexibility. You get the amount you are qualified for without any kind of bean-counting, and it all comes directly to you to manage, not to the university or your landlord.
For both GI Bill® programs, full benefits last for 36 months of full-time use. They can be extended proportionately if you are only attending school part-time, however.
You may be eligible for both programs but the VA will make you pick only one or the other. But this is currently being litigated and it is possible, as of 2022, to tap into one program if you have already exhausted the other for a maximum total of 48 months of benefits.
What’s up With GI Bill Kicker Supplements?
Once upon a time, most of the services operated their own independent college funds. These were basically branch-specific slush funds that were used to offer post-service supplements to your GI Bill money as an enlistment incentive for in-demand specialties. Known as “kicker” payments, they just get added on to your basic monthly payment with the MGIB, or as part of your housing allowance through the Post-9/11 package.
But most services put their college funds out to pasture in favor of offering cash bonuses and other guarantees as enlistment incentives. Today, only the Navy and Marine Corps still actively offer college fund kickers with enlistment or re-enlistment contracts.
If you’ve got a sleeve full of hash marks and were a good negotiator when you joined up, you may be eligible for Army College Fund payments. But for most Army, Air Force, Space Force, and Coast Guard personnel, kicker payments are no longer on the table.
The Yellow Ribbon Program Builds on GI Bill® Payments to Help Cover the Cost of More Expensive Schools
Your post-service education benefits through the GI Bill® are a great deal that will help you cement the discipline and training you received in the military with the advantages of an American university education.
But the VA recognizes that the right university education in some hot fields doesn’t necessarily mean a public university education. It’s also clear that for cutting-edge jobs in areas like technology, biotech, or finance, sometimes you need to get your training where the action is. That can mean relocating from your home state to attend universities in hotbeds like Seattle, Silicon Valley, or New York?
In those cases, your tuition costs are likely to total up to a lot more than your GI Bill® benefits will pay. So you don’t get left behind, Congress created the Yellow Ribbon program to make up the difference.
The Yellow Ribbon program is a partnership between universities and the Department of Veteran’s Affairs. Each university that decides to participate determines a number of students it is willing to support, and an amount that it is will to contribute to their tuition over and above what the Post 9/11 GI Bill® will cover.
The VA then kicks in the same amount. And that can be enough in most cases to cover the difference and ensure you get a first-rate education even out-of-state or at the priciest private universities offering degrees in your field.
Yellow Ribbon is only available if you are using Post 9/11 GI Bill® benefits, not MGIB. The qualifications for the program also mirror Post 9/11 GI Bill® qualifications:
And, in case you hadn’t already guessed, it also lasts exactly as long as your Post 9/11 benefits will, 36 months for full eligibility.
The Forever GI Bill® Adds on Even More Veteran’s Education Benefits
A lot has changed since the first GI Bill® legislation was passed after World War II. That’s why so many different versions of it have been passed over the years. Most recently, Congress has put together a set of tweaks to adjust current GI Bill® benefits instead of passing a whole new law. That set of tweaks is known as the Forever GI Bill®.
A lot of what the Forever GI Bill® actually did was just offer a tune-up to existing GI Bill® benefits. So some of the benefits described above actually came out of this 2017 update, not in the original Chapter 33 legislation.
The Forever GI Bill® offered some important tweaks, like:
But it also did a lot to help veteran’s educational benefits to keep up with the times.
The Freedom to Use Your Benefits for Online Programs
Distance learning was already a thing in 2005 when the Post-9/11 GI Bill® was originally passed. But no one really understood at the time what a huge deal it was going to become. That was magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic, when even a lot of on-campus programs suddenly became online.
Fortunately, the Forever GI Bill® already updated some of the distance learning provisions in veteran’s education benefits.
First, part of the adjustments to monthly housing allowances offered better support for remote students. In the past, the MHA was calculated based on the location of the college itself. But now it is calculated based on the zip code of the campus where you attend most of your classes, or 50 percent of the national average if all your classes are online.
Extra Funding for STEM Degree Programs
Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) have always been fields that the military has been involved with. West Point was originally started to teach engineering!
Your service background is excellent preparation for jobs ranging from heavy-duty data mining to civil engineering. You already got the basics down; you know how to work on a team to build things, whether that’s bridges or software. But you also need a strong formal university education to succeed in these fields.
STEM also happens to be one of the hottest areas for college training that exists today. So the Forever GI Bill® took some important steps to beef up support for veteran’s studying in these subjects.
Better Support for New Ways of Technical Training and Education
A lot of high-tech training these days doesn’t necessarily happen through traditional college programs. Instead, special-purpose coding bootcamps and dedicated technical education schools are offering fast-track training in key skills like:
In the past, you couldn’t use GI Bill® benefits to attend many of these schools, even if they were run by universities. But with the Forever GI Bill®, the VA opened the door for other training providers to get approval to receive payment for this training.
Veteran Employment Through Technical Education (VET TEC) Courses are Focused On Today’s Top Career Fields
VET TEC is a bold five-year pilot program launched through the VA designed to offer focused technology training options to veterans in five different focus areas:
To receive VET TEC benefits, you must be eligible for GI Bill® benefits, and have at least one day remaining of your entitlement. But using VET TEC doesn’t count against your GI Bill® benefits, so you won’t draw down any remaining time you have left in that program. You can also apply if you are within 180 days of your expected separation date, so you can actually get a jump on your training before discharge.
VET TEC only happens through certain VA-approved training providers. But as long as you find a program that meets that criteria, it will pay:
And because it’s a pilot program, there isn’t currently a restriction on the amount of this benefit you can use. You’re free to keep participating as long as Congressional funding holds out.
Of course, if the program is a success, you can expect it to be extended into the future. More funding was provided as recently as 2020, so prospects are looking good.
Extended Benefits for More Intensive Technical Training
One of the most important updates for STEM majors is the extension of available benefits. In such complicated fields, it’s tough to complete a degree in the typical four-year window that GI Bill® benefits cover.
So the Forever GI Bill® also introduced the Edith Nourse Rogers STEM Scholarship. For eligible students, that stacks on an additional six months worth of benefits, paying out up to $30,000 dollars in extra tuition, to help you complete a standard undergraduate degree in one of these select fields:
These extensions are primarily offered to Post-9/11 GI Bill® recipients who were eligible at the 100 percent level but will have exhausted that entitlement before completing school. It only covers basic tuition, not any additional Yellow Ribbon payments.
Tutorial Assistance Offers Extra Help to Get You Through Tough Classes
Tutorial assistance is another VA program that aims to make your transition to civilian college life a little smoother. Although you probably have great discipline and resilience after doing your stint, your classroom and study habits might have gotten a little rusty between high school and post-discharge college.
TA is there to help you get over that hump. If you are taking advantage of any kind of GI Bill® benefits at a half-time rate or higher, you are probably eligible for this program. It’s pretty self-explanatory: if you need a tutor in a specific class, and your instructor and school agree you need a tutor, then the VA will kick in up to $100 per month to pay for it.
The benefit is limited to $1,200 in total, but that’s a full year of tutoring. And that’s on top of your GI Bill® benefits—at least, if you are using the Post-9/11 version. If you are on MGIB, then you can still get $1,200 total coverage, but it will start being subtracted from your monthly payment after the first $600.
Other Veteran’s Benefits for Your Post-Service College Education
Although we’re talking about post-discharge educational assistance here, that’s far from the only kind of support the VA offers to veterans. Your service entitles you to many different kinds of benefit programs. And although many of those aren’t really aimed at your education, they may still be have features to support you through college.
If you were injured or disabled in the line of duty, your GI Bill® eligibility is accelerated, too—a Purple Heart instantly qualifies you for full Post-9/11 GI Bill® benefits regardless of how long you were in the service.
The VA’s commitment to wounded warriors is simple: they do their very best to give you the same quality of life and abilities that you would have had if you had not been injured.
That includes all the different kinds of functions that the average college student has to perform. You can get:
Disabled Veteran Housing Assistance
Two different VA programs exist to help adapt your home environment, either temporary or permanent, to make it easier for you to live and study with your disability.
VA healthcare benefits are some of the best in the world, and most vets with a hardship or disability discharge are fully eligible. The hard-working doctors, nurses, and rehab specialists at the VA can offer support for all kinds of issues that may be interfering with your studies.
Having someone to help with the little things always makes it easier to focus. The VA may be able to offer a stipend for a full or part-time caregiver to help you get around and handle basic household and healthcare tasks.
Disability Auto Allowances
Transportation is a big concern to many disabled veterans. A one-time payment of over $20,000 may be available to help you purchase a vehicle with accommodations or to make the necessary changes to your current personal vehicle so you can get to class more easily.
Veteran Readiness and Employment
The VR&E program is built around the idea of getting disabled veterans back to working and living independently. This can give you up to 48 months of services in a variety of tracks that may directly pay for some courses or offer vocational and subsistence support.
You can find more details about all of these programs in our Guide to Military Disability College Benefits.
States and Other Entities Do Their Part To Help Educate Discharged Veterans
We’ve been talking about federal benefits offered through either the Department of Defense or the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, but there are other government agencies that also want to give vets a boost in the private sector.
Many states have separate veteran’s education benefits for residents. This usually comes in the form of reduced tuition rates at state colleges. If you are on the Post-9/11 GI Bill®, that might not matter much—the VA covers full state tuition anyway. But if you are paying directly and relying on MGIB payments to compensate you for tuition costs, those state programs can make a huge difference in your out-of-pocket expenses.
Other states offer complete tuition wavers for Purple Heart recipients. Some offer discounts on state-run transportation system, handy if your college attendance includes a commute. And many states offer property tax exemptions or home loan assistance—not directly related to school, but definitely a factor if you are settling in somewhere near your university.
Recognition of Your Service Can Lead To Unexpected Benefits From All Kinds of Organizations
Although it was the federal government that was signing your paychecks in the service, you probably never forgot that the money was coming from the American public. And they haven’t forgotten your service, either.
The entire country is rooting for you to build the life you want and to get the career you deserve. And that means that even private organizations and even local governments often kick in to do their part for vets. By far the biggest opportunity this offers in education comes through a variety of scholarships that are only available to veterans.
Just as there are scholarships available for students from a certain town, or studying certain subjects, or who belong to specific ethnicities, there are also scholarships available only to those who have served their country.
These are offered by all kinds of different organizations, ranging from the Lint Center for National Security Studies to HotelPlanner.com. These come in all kinds of different amounts with all sorts of different requirements… some may be specific to the branch you were discharged from, and others may only be available to certain college majors.
Whether it’s coming from private organizations, states, or the federal government, you will have plenty of help adjusting to a civilian career. You had the country’s back while you were in the service. And when it comes to getting an education and launching a new career, the country has yours.