When I swore into the National Guard, it was a peaceful time in the world. 5 days later, things changed. I swore into the National Guard 5 days before September 11th happened. Chew on that a minute!
I have no problem admitting to anyone I joined the Guard to pay for school. My timing would cause me to not graduate for another 16 years, but my timing also manifested additional school funds that I was in the perfect position to use, one program right after the other.
Because I went to college over the course of 17 years, I consider myself an expert in military school money now.
If you’re in the Guard, this is the roadmap to properly utilizing most, or all of the benefits available to you for school. If you’re in the Guard and paying for any school out of pocket, something might be wrong, so as you read through this, if it’s not adding up and you think something isn’t right, please feel free to reach out to me.
1.) First, let’s get a little familiar with each program/benefit.
This is the one I was offered when I first got in, and most new soldiers now get offered upon entry. This is a federal program for us “weekend warriors” to go to school. It pays a monthly stipend. As far as GI Bill programs go, this is the weakest.
Back when 9-11 first happened, this program also known as “REAP” came out. It was a juiced up version of 1606 benefits for anyone that deployed.
If you were ever active duty and qualified for this – I can’t help you. I think they call this the “active duty GI Bill” now and I’ve never qualified for it. However, if you’re one of those guys or gals that left active duty and switched to the Guard shortly thereafter, you might need to research your options. If you at some point in your career became eligible for Chapter 33 Benefits, and you’ve switched over to the Guard – you might still find the rest of this information helpful.
This is the best GI Bill program out there. You get a percentage of tuition paid, and a monthly stipend based on a percentage of BAH for your zip code. Also, if you don’t want or need this benefit, you can pass it on to your dependent(s).
State Tuition Waiver
Most states, but not all, have programs in place that waive your tuition if you’re in the National Guard.
State GI Bill
All soldiers basically quality for federal tuition assistance. Let me warn you that you have to request this through the www.goarmyed.com website, and it’s ridiculous.
All soldiers basically quality for federal tuition assistance. Let me warn you that you have to request this through the www.goarmyed.com website, and it’s ridiculous. The website if complicated and the process is slow. You will notice I will end up putting this at the bottom of my sequence.
If you qualify for this, odds are you already had existing student loan debt. This is a great plan for paying those back, however, in some cases it can limit your ability to use other sources of funding.
2.) Second, let’s review some processes prior to enrollment.
It doesn’t matter if you’re an 18-year-old private or a 33-year-old NCO, getting all this in motion is not simple. The military and the VA are related, but not connected, therefore you will encounter many separate moving pieces throughout the process of getting enrolled.
I would like to encourage you to also read my breakdown of college and the cost. That has information that will also be helpful.
Here are some things you’ll need to have, or have done before you’re ready to take action and get all this stuff paid for.
- You will need a Member 4 copy of your DD 214.
- You will need to know which benefits you are authorized to use.
- You need to have a college picked out – and know if you plan on attending school in-person or online.
- Complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) – and yes, even if your parents are rich, or you’re an older soldier – it does not matter, you HAVE to fill this out.
- Make contact with your benefits coordinator at your school of choice. This person can usually be found on the school’s website, or by calling and simply asking to talk to the person who handles veterans’ benefits.
After these 5 main things are done, you will be ready to maximize your school money.
3.) Third thing is completely your responsibility – maximizing your school money.
I said it in the title, if you’re paying out-of-pocket for school as a Soldier in the National Guard – something is probably wrong.
You can start this process most effectively once you pick your school. Know which benefits you can use (see above) and start the initial process of using them. Knowing what school, what term/year, and what your living situation will be helps expedite a lot of this process.
There’s an art to this, or rather, a sequence of using these benefits to ensure you never run out of money before you graduate. Remember, I said earlier that every state is different, so if your state sucks, take it up with your elected officials. *It is critical to know if the benefits you are using are state benefits, or federal benefits. If you hit a snag or need help, that will have most impact on where you can go for help.
Before every semester, you have to ensure you have everything in motion, and during the semester you have to follow-up, verify attendance, report grades timely…this is YOUR responsibility. Many agencies and arms of the school and VA will help with, and actually do most of the work, but they are over-worked and under-funded. If you do not follow up and do your part, it if completely your fault. Almost every mistake they make can be caught early enough to fix if you’re paying attention.
Okay, here we go.
4.) In this final step, we will assume you have enrolled, and you can see your first tuition bill has posted on your account.
*Please note that all the math in this section is made-up and hypothetical. It does not reflect any actual numbers for your benefits or tuition bill, I made these up just to have an example to help explain how the benefits work.
Okay, so you’re enrolled in 4 classes for the upcoming term. School starts in 20 days, and you login to see your tuition bill has posted and you owe $4000 to the school. As I mentioned earlier, you should have filled out and submitted a FAFSA. Let’s assume the government identified you as “in-need” and the school identified you as “deserving” – and between the two of them, you were awarded $1000 in aid.
Great, your bill is already down to $3000.
If you have completed all the steps I listed so far, at a minimum you should already be enrolled in your GI Bill program, whichever one you’re qualified to use. If you’re in the 1606, you will get a monthly stipend, but no help with tuition, so you will move on to the next step. Other GI Bill recipients will get some tuition help here. Let’s assume you got 60% tuition paid for by the GI Bill. Now you only owe $1200, and that larger monthly payment you receive will probably more than cover that remaining amount, but rather than wait for that, you can still so what the 1606 recipients are going to do in this next step.
In my example, whether you still owe $3000 at this point, or you owe $1200, you can get this part taken care of by applying for the state tuition assistance. Not every state does this, but I know I used it in Oklahoma and Wisconsin. This program essentially reimburses you for tuition. One your GI Bill has been applied, and you have that remaining balance, this program will pay for any tuition that is remaining in most situations. However, you need to know two things. First, you have to pass your classes with a C or higher, or else they won’t pay. Secondly, this program, like the others, is not a bottomless pit of money, there are always limits, so pay attention.
You’ll note that the state tuition assistance is not available to everyone. If that’s the case, you can still apply for the federal tuition assistance and do the exact same thing.
Once you have this tuition assistance set up, you will still have your balance due to the school, and this money does not get paid until you prove you passed your classes, so pay attention to the deadlines. You might have to use your stipend, or an initial savings to pay for that first semester, then keep rolling your reimbursements into the next semester and continue paying it forward. This should keep you from borrowing, and keep you from paying anything out of pocket.
In this scenario, we started with a tuition balance of $4000. If you entered your first year of school with $4000 saved, I want you to see the benefit of that.
- On the first day your tuition bill posted, you could apply for and enroll in all your military benefit programs for school money, and any non-military financial aid.
- If you paid cash, your balance would be $0 (but you would be $4000 in the hole right at that moment in time).
- After your “FAFSA money” applied, you would be cut a refund check from the financial aid office. In my earlier example, this would be a check cut to you in the amount of $1000 – so now you’re only $3000 in the hole.
- After the GI Bill processed, you would receive a refund check for the percentage of tuition it would have covered (if your program pays tuition). In my earlier example, a chapter 33 user might get a check for about $1800. See where this is going?
- At the end of the semester, if you pass all your classes, the tuition reimbursement in most cases is going to be $4000, which is the original cost of the tuition. Remember, this program runs out like all the others, so if family problems, deployments, etc. are going to slow you down in school – don’t exhaust all your benefits trying to pocket a bunch of money.
When applied in the right sequence, and by you paying all of it up-front, you would be ahead by the end of the semester, which would allow you to take that money and roll it into next semester and do the same thing, and if there was any extra money beyond that, you could start investing it.
Soldiers earn these benefits. If anyone in the general population knew that we have the capacity to get a degree, and make some extra money in the process without being tied to a third or fourth job – most people would nod their head in support of that. Use any extra funds for good though. Practice saving early and often for retirement, and giving. The bottom line is, if you’re involuntarily paying for school every semester, you’re probably missing the boat on one or more of your benefits (military and/or non-military).
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