Back to School: Bridging the Financial Gap

If you're about to leave the service and head back to school with your hard-earned Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, you've got a pretty good deal on your hands: full state school tuition, housing allowance equal to that of an E-5 with dependents, and more.

But be prepared: Relying on the GI Bill alone can still leave you in need of extra cash, depending on your location and personal expenses. In addition to looking at a few details about your Post-9/11 benefits, we'll also discuss a few more ways to put extra cash in your pocket -- never a bad idea as a full-time student.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill

Man in military uniform raising his hand in classroom
Ariel Skelley/Blend Images/Getty Images

If you have an affordable living situation, the Post-9/11 GI Bill housing allowance amounts to getting paid just to go to school. Which is good, because if you take it seriously, a degree program is a full-time job. But consider these issues beforehand:

  • Make sure your program is actually eligible for housing allowance. You must enroll at least half-time and physically attend class. (Online and correspondence programs are eligible, but the rate's only $684 per month.)
  • There’s no break pay anymore, so plan to charge straight through summer and winter session classes, or to tide yourself over with savings or temporary employment if you plan on taking vacation.
  • If you’re applying to a private institution instead of a state-funded school, do the math before you commit. Check tuition rates against Veterans Affairs' (VA) tuition and fees cap for your state. Verify that the school participates in the Yellow Ribbon Program, or offers other veteran tuition awards. Get in touch with their on-campus veterans administrator.
  • President Obama's Executive Order 13607 recognized there are a lot of sub-par schools preying on veterans and their hard-earned (and Federally-guaranteed) benefits. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is, so research your school carefully and exercise some healthy skepticism.

Unemployment Benefits

U.S. Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis, shakes hands with a NC National Guard soldier.
Photo courtesy of North Carolina National Guard Public Affairs.

Under Federal law, veterans of active service are eligible for unemployment insurance (UI) payments after discharge. But UI is generally for people who’ve been laid off -- why should someone who voluntarily left the military (quit) get it?

I don’t make the rules, I just tell you about them. But if you think about it, the military is a job like no other, even for Military Occupational Specialties (MOS) with clear civilian equivalents. Whether you leave the service voluntarily or not, you’re not going to find an employer that’s really “equivalent” to the military in terms of the benefits they offer -– and the sacrifice they ask for.

Don't worry about "cheating the system." The money is there legally to help you transition from your military career to a civilian one. It’s only temporary, and you’re required to look for employment while you’re receiving it.

Some states also waive the requirement to look for work if you’re enrolled in a college or training program. In my home state of New York, for example, the “599 Training Program” covers students who’ll finish school in less than two years. This varies widely by state, so search your local Department of Labor website to see if they have a UI training program, and if you qualify. More

VA Disability Compensation

Photo courtesy of Ed Schipul.

Many veterans (myself included) may be uncomfortable applying for disability, especially those who haven't received a Purple Heart, served in a support MOS, or feel that other more deserving comrades have sacrificed more.

The fact is, there's wide latitude under Federal law for what constitutes a service-connected disability. Sometimes we’re not our own best judge of what we’re owed when pride -– not to mention our higher standards for what constitutes sacrifice -– gets in the way.

There’s no way I can convince you. I didn’t run out to get my rating either. But through my local VA’s Work Study Program (see below) I met a lot of folks who echoed this advice from the VA Under Secretary for Disability Assistance, Thomas Pamperin:

“If you’re concerned that it might not be appropriate to take money for a condition because ‘I’m fine, was just doing my duty and I have a job” - there are a lot of people who feel that way – consider this. I think you should file your claim [emphasis mine.] If granted you can always decline to receive the money.”

Service-connected benefits can be a huge relief when money is tight, and no one is judging you for claiming them if the VA decides you've got it coming. Applications can take a while to process, but if approved, they’re back-paid to the day you filed your claim. A wide variety of conditions may be covered, subject to VA approval, from physical injury to emotional problems.

And in addition to money, a VA disability rating carries some perks when you're applying for a Federal job.

VA Work Study Program

For veterans using their GI Bill benefits, the VA also offers work study. While the pay isn't high –- Federal or state minimum wage, whichever is higher -- it’s unique in that:

  • it can be tailored to your academic schedule and needs. Unlike your standard employer, the VA knows that class, studying, and homework take priority.
  • you’ll be working with and for veterans. You may find work at the local VA hospital, or even as your school’s GI Bill certifying official. Depending on school policy, working on campus you may also get paid extra if your school's hourly rate for work study is higher than the VA's.

You must reapply for VA work study every semester, and only after the school has certified your schedule to the VA. Full-time students can generally get about 500 maximum hours of work each semester, tracked on a time sheet and payable in 50-hour increments.

To apply, check out the VA’s website (linked in the title above) or get in touch with whomever administers the work study program at your local VA facility. If you’re not sure who that is, their departments for Community Relations and Returning OIF/OEF Veterans are good places to start. More