Making Sense of Military Education Benefits

service member getting advice on military education benefits from an advisor

Your time spent serving in the military is a source of tremendous pride, and the experience has undoubtedly shaped your life. But as you look to turn the page to the next chapter in life, you know you’ve got some work to do.

Choosing a school, navigating finical aid, and starting college can be a complicated process for any college-bound individual—and the sometimes-confusing education benefits tied to military service can add an extra layer of figuring out to your to-do list.

As a service member or veteran, you want to take advantage of the education benefits offered to you either by your branch or by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. However, these programs can get a little confusing, particularly if you’re trying to wade through this information while transitioning from service. But don’t let that be what holds you back—if you’re interested in going back to school, now is the time to start getting a better handle on the benefits available to you. To help with that, we’ll walk through an overview of the various education benefit programs available, who they apply to and how to get the ball rolling with each.

GI Bill®

The GI Bill education benefits from the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) can help you pay for college-level education courses. There have been several iterations of the GI Bill, but the original benefits began in 1944 as a way to help service members return to civilian life after World War II. Generally, GI Bill benefits provide money to help cover the costs of attending college or other employment training programs. Let’s break down some of the different benefit options and iterations commonly found under the GI Bill umbrella so you can get a better idea of what might apply to you.

1. Post-9/11 GI Bill

The post- 9/11 GI bill is an education benefit specifically for the latest generation of service members and veterans. According to the VA, to qualify for this program at least one of the following must be true:1

  • You served at least 90 days on active duty (either all at once or with breaks in service) on or after September 11, 2001, or
  • You received a Purple Heart on or after September 11, 2001, and were honorably discharged after any amount of service, or
  • You served for at least 30 continuous days (all at once, without a break in service) on or after September 11, 2001, and were honorably discharged with a service-connected disability, or
  • You are a dependent child using benefits transferred by a qualifying Veteran or service member

When you meet these qualifications, you’re eligible to receive the minimum benefit of 40 percent. This percentage of benefits eligibility is based on the number of months you’ve served. Those who’ve served 36 months in active duty or were discharged with a service-connected disability after 30 days of continuous active duty service are eligible to receive 100 percent of the benefit. This benefit must be used within 15 years of your last period of active duty of at least 90 consecutive days.

The funds from this program can provide up to 36 months of benefits including:

  • Money to help with tuition and institution fees
  • A monthly housing allowance
  • Money for books and supplies
  • Money for moving from a rural area to a school more than 500 miles away

2. Montgomery GI Bill

Like the Post-9/11 GI Bill, The Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB) aims to aide service members in their pursuit of education and training. While similar in intent, there are some important distinctions. For one, this benefit must be used within 10 years. Another distinction is that the MGIB can provide education and training benefits that don’t result in a degree—for example, trade, technical, license and certification courses. This benefit is also administered differently—the education benefits of the Post 9/11 GI Bill are paid directly to a school via the VA, while MGIB benefits are paid directly on a monthly basis to the service member.

So who is eligible for MGIB benefits? There are two Montgomery GI Benefit programs you might qualify for:

  • Montgomery GI Bill - Active Duty (MGIB-AD): This program provides education benefits to veterans and service members who have had at least two years of active duty, though additional qualifications may affect your eligibility.
  • Montgomery GI Bill - Selected Reserve (MGIB-SR): This program provides benefits for members of the Selected Reserve. To be eligible you must either have a 6-year service obligation in the Selected Reserve or be an officer in the Selected Reserve who has agreed to serve an additional 6 years beyond the initial service obligation. Additionally you’ll need to be in good standing, have a high school diploma or equivalent and have completed your Initial Active Duty Training.

It is possible, and fairly common, for service members to be eligible for both the Post-9/11 GI Bill and MGIB benefits. There is the potential to combine these benefits under the right circumstances for a maximum total of 48 months of benefits, but that might not always be your best course of action. It helps to have a strong grasp on what your educational goals and near-term plans are. Do you intend to pursue a graduate degree? Will you work part-time and attend school part-time? The details of your plans will strongly influence which route is best for you.

To get started with weighing your potential benefits options, take advantage of the GI Bill Comparison tool. You can also talk with a military specialist at a school you’re interested in or an Education Service Officer for additional guidance.

Yellow Ribbon Program

For some service members the GI bill can cover up to 100% of in-state public college cost. However, private schools, out-of-state public school, and graduate school costs can sometimes exceed the maximums. The Yellow Ribbon program was created to help cover these gaps.

If your chosen institution participates in the Yellow Ribbon program, the VA will match the school’s contribution (scholarship or grant) based on the standing agreement your school has with the VA.

You won’t need apply for the Yellow Ribbon Program until after you apply for your GI benefits, but this is a good benefit to keep in mind, especially if you’re considering a private college or university, an out-of-state school, or graduate school. You can search for schools that participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program including their contributions with a search tool on the VA website

Tuition Assistance

Tuition Assistance is a benefit funded by the individual branches of the military for members who are currently serving. Each branch has their own criteria for eligibility, process and benefits. However, all branches have the ability to pay up to 100 percent of tuition expenses for their members—up to $250 per semester credits and $4,500 per fiscal year. What you’ll qualify for depends on which branch you’re a part of and what they offer. Tuition assistance can help you pay for tuition and fees associated with your courses, like lab fees. However books and course materials are not covered.

To find out what you may qualify for, start by visiting your branch’s page on tuition assistance:

Top-Up Program

The Top-Up program is another option for service members whose GI benefits don’t cover their full educational costs. To be eligible for this program you’ll first need to meet the qualifications for MGI Active Duty benefits and earn approval for tuition assistance through a military branch. While the Top-Up program can help you cover expenses, using this program can affect your GI Bill benefits. While it’s a good option to keep in mind, this is a program you’ll want to weigh carefully with the help of a specialist.

Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E)

An added benefit from the VA includes Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Benefits services offered under the post-9/11 GI bill. Through VR&E service members and veterans can find help in building their career through:

  • Career choice assistance—helps participants under career options that are best for them based of interests and skill.
  • Benefits coaching—guidance on VA benefits and resources to help participants achieve their education and career goals.
  • Personalized support—academic counseling or adjustment support to help participants succeed.
  • Independent living services—help for those unable to work in traditional employment due to disability.

Most recently discharged service members, veterans, dependents of veterans, and those leaving active duty soon qualify for these services. You can learn more and get started by applying on the VA website.

Don’t wait to pursue your education.

Though there’s a lot you’ll need to process in order to put your hard-earned military education benefits to good use, the effort is worth it. A college education can be the key to unlocking new opportunities—combine that with the strong work ethic and discipline you’ve developed through military service and there’s a lot for potential employers to like.

Once you’ve got a good handle on your educational goals, there’s no shame in turning to others for expert advice. Military specialists at schools you’re interested in can help answer questions you may have and provide additional resources and information as you weigh your options. If you’d like to learn more about what Rasmussen University has to offer to veterans and service members, visit the Military Benefits page.

1U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, Education and training – Post-9/11 GI Bill (Chapter 33), [accessed June, 2020]

GI Bill is a registered trademark of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

About the author

Kirsten Slyter

Kirsten is a Content Writer at Collegis Education where she enjoys researching and writing on behalf of Rasmussen University. She understands the difference that education can make and hopes to inspire readers at every stage of their education journey.


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