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Learning How to Pay for College Using Military Benefits

Back in the day, I didn’t have money to pay for college, so I applied for federal loans and dutifully paid $133 monthly for 20-plus years. Those payments are long gone, but now my husband and I are learning how to pay for our daughter’s college dreams with the GI Bill so she can avoid decades of loans. We’re grateful for his hard-earned GI Bill benefits. However, we’re drowning in the details. Just like everything else in the military, there is no one-size-fits-all plan.

Planning Ahead

Years ago, my husband transferred his benefits to our daughter, but we didn’t investigate entitlements or how to begin the process. All we knew was that the GI Bill was a tremendous benefit to look into later. Now that our daughter is a junior in high school, we’re learning everything we can to pay for school. So far, my advice is this: Plan years ahead and gather information from reputable sources, not just the random advice posted in Facebook groups. It takes a while to digest the process and variables.

Although I’ll offer simple explanations for the education benefits that pertain to us, the Post-9/11 GI Bill, Chapter 35 Benefits, and the Yellow Ribbon Fund are widely used by military kids and spouses.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill

When you begin researching the Post-9/11 GI Bill, it’s overwhelming. There’s so much to know about eligibility. The easiest way to start is to read the VA’s Post-9/11 GI Bill: Transferability document. It determines if the service member has benefits to transfer.

  • You must be a member of the Armed Forces (active duty or Selected Reserve, officer or enlisted) on or after Aug. 1, 2009, and:
  • Have at least six years of military service (active duty or Selected Reserve) on the date of election.
  • Members must be eligible to be retained for four years from the date of election and not be precluded, prior to approval, by either standard policy (Service or DOD) or statute.
  • Transfer requests can only be submitted and approved while on active duty.

How to Start the Transfer Through milConnect

Service members request a Transfer of Education Benefits through milConnect. Track the progress and correct any errors. Paperwork mistakes are one of the most common roadblocks for families when it’s time to use the GI Bill. After the transfer, your dependent must send their GI Bill certificate of eligibility to their school.

Most colleges have a dedicated Veterans Affairs office or someone familiar with the process who answers questions like, “When do I have to send in the COE?”

Other VA Education Benefits for Dependents

Not every service member is eligible for all education benefits, but they’re worth a look if your child wants to attend a school that costs more than the GI Bill covers or if your service member has passed away or is permanently disabled due to a service-connected incident.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of options for military dependents, but they serve many year after year.

  • Yellow Ribbon Program: If you’re eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill, your student can likely use the Yellow Ribbon Program to close the gap between what the GI Bill is authorized to pay and the actual college costs. This VA partner program is institution-specific, so connect with the school and the VA to determine how much they’ll pay each year.
  • Chapter 35 Benefits: These GI Bill benefits were created for survivors and dependents of a disabled parent who want to attend college or higher education programs like technical and vocational schools.

My Favorite GI Bill Tool

I am a bonafide information hoarder, which is sometimes detrimental but helpful for the GI Bill. My favorite resource is the GI Bill Comparison Tool. Here, you’ll learn how much the GI Bill pays for each school. Enter the school’s name and it shows coverage for tuition, housing and books. You can also determine if the school participates in the Yellow Ribbon Program.

Learn from my mistake: I stressed that as an active-duty service member’s dependent, our daughter wouldn’t receive Military Housing Allowance because my husband draws BAH, but after some digging, I found out that wasn’t true.

I know there are hours more research ahead as the days to graduation grow closer, but I feel better about getting started. Now, I know where to find the information I need.

If you can’t find answers to GI Bill questions or prefer to talk to a human, call the dedicated VA number: 888-GIBILL-1 (888-442-4551). Or call Military OneSource: 800-342-9647.

Written By Dawn Smith
Army Spouse

Dawn is an experienced military spouse and freelance writer. When she isn’t writing, her teen daughter, Army husband, and Golden Retriever keep her busy with dog walks, home upkeep, travel planning, and chauffeur duties.

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  • Barb Jobidon says:

    How can I find out what my daughter, D, may be eligible for? Her dad, my late husband, Eric, medically retired Marine, passed away before D was 3, May 2008, from a rare cancer that he contracted while serving in the Gulf War. It states on his death certificate that cause of death was service related. Over the past 15 years we were fortunate enough to receive medical insurance and a monthly stipend. I inquired with our local VA if there is/was anything else that I could do to get other assistance, but was told that ‘if I didn’t know the correct questions to ask, then he couldn’t help me.’ So I gave up on the military and just was able thankful for what we received. I used the monthly stipend to pay for D’s private Christian education, as was Eric’s wishes. I’ve since learned that there were programs out there that could have helped. Just as I’ve also learned that there are programs that send children of fallen soldiers birthday presents until they are 18. (I discovered this a week before D turned 18.) So, now that D is in college, out of state, I’d love to know where to look for assistance. I don’t know if she would she fall under a GI bill or Ch. 35 or something else? Just as I don’t know if we would be considered a Gold Star family? I can’t find any help with that, as that might help with her tuition. Any insight that you might have would be greatly appreciated! Thank you!!

  • Social Media Admins says:

    Hi Barb, for more information, our hotline is available 24/7 at 800-342-9647.

  • when I was a reservist I had theses benefits but dod not know to transfer before I retired.Now retired I can’t transfer these benefits. If there let me know. please. I have been retired since 2011. I did 3 years active with 22 in the reserves plusevtwo activation to active duty with one to Iraq campaign.

  • Social Media Admins says:

    Hi Keith, for more information, our hotline is available 24/7 at 800-342-9647.