I’ve heard and read the horror stories. The VA significantly delaying tuition payments. Basic housing allowance payments not being received. Not being able to enroll in college classes because of gross miscommunication between academic institution and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Those were scenarios that I wanted to avoid at all costs. But fear of the unknown is the greatest contributor to inaction, procrastination and futile, last-minute, half-assed efforts. I was expecting a lot of runaround, long phone calls with automated operators and wait times lasting 90 minutes. So once I received the great news that I had been accepted into DePaul University as a transfer student this past week, I began my trek across the information minefield toward obtaining educational benefits through the Post 9/11 GI Bill.
In case you are not sure what the Post 9/11 GI Bill is, for the sake of brevity I will give an abbreviated explanation as it applies to my scenario, compared to the pages of information available at www.gibill.va.gov.
Eligible veterans can receive up to $17,500 annually for college, trade school, vocational training, etc., for a period of up to 48 months. As a full-time student, you can also receive Basic Allowance for Housing at the E-5 with dependents rate, based on the geographical location of the school. In my case, I would be eligible to receive $1,635 a month. (BAH Calculator) I will also receive an annual stipend of $1,000 under the Post 9/11 GI Bill.
Another helpful program is the Yellow Ribbon Program, in which participating academic institutions and the VA team up to offset any costs exceeding the $17.5k available from the GI Bill. The participating school will determine how much they will offer, and the VA will match that amount. This is very helpful in my case, as tuition as a full-time undergrad runs just over $30,000.
Interestingly, it took more than one source of information for me to understand where I needed to go. The greatest source of reliable information did not come from the VA or any academic institution, but from my Facebook account, and those veterans who have obtained VA educational benefits. I’d ask a question or two, and was bombarded with positive and helpful information from fellow Marines who have gone through the process.
I hope everyone interested in obtaining the Post 9/11 GI Bill will have the ease I currently have, as my experience may differ from others, but in a few, easy steps, here is how I was able to apply for the GI Bill, and what I need to do next:
The VONAPP (Veterans On Line Application) website is an official U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) website that enables service members, veterans and their beneficiaries, and other designated individuals to apply for benefits using the Internet. U.S. military veterans, service members, members of the Selected Reserve, and dependents can apply for education benefits.
Be sure to elect Ch. 33 benefits in lieu of Ch. 30 benefits to switch from the Montgomery GI Bill to the Post 9/11 GI Bill (if you wish to do so), and print a copy of your application before you submit. You’ll receive a confirmation page that you will also want to print and keep, when referencing your application with the VA.
2. Contact your academic institution’s financial aid office
You won’t be the first or last veteran to apply to that school, so your situation shouldn’t be alien to them. In fact, many colleges and universities’ financial aid offices have staff that deal with applicants and enrolled students who use the VA educational benefits, and can answer many of your questions and make the overall admissions/enrollment/payment process easier.
3. Submit required forms
Your school will require the Certificate of Eligibility of educational benefits you will receive from the VA, once they review your VONAPP and deem you 100% eligible for the Post 9/11 GI Bill. From what I was told by a VA rep over the phone, the average processing time is 25 days from the completion of the VONAPP to the eligibility judgment. They will also need a copy of your DD-214, which is Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty service members receive right before they go on terminal leave or upon their End of Active Service (EAS), whichever comes first.
In turn, the VA will require enrollment certification from the academic institution you plan on attending. In my case, I can get the communication between DePaul and the VA rolling by completing the VA Educational Benefits Form. This is what DePaul University’s VA Educational Benefits Form looks like (your school’s requirements/forms may differ):
I’m in a unique situation. I go on terminal leave in early August, and Fall 2012 classes at DePaul begin Sept. 5. However, my EAS is Sept. 18, and until that glorious day arrives, I am still considered an active-duty Marine. Because of that, I am not eligible for the sweet Chicago BAH of $1,635/month, nor am I eligible for the Yellow Ribbon Program. Neither is available to me, or anyone else, until I come off active-duty military service.
There is positivity to this. A very helpful Megan (I forget her last name) at DePaul University’s Financial Aid Office, who is familiar in dealing with the GI Bill and veteran students, explained that while would not be eligible for the Yellow Ribbon Program due to the 12-day overlap between my active-duty status and the Fall semester, DePaul bills on a quarterly basis, and the $17,500 available from the Post 9/11 GI Bill will cover that. Once Sept. 18 hits, I will be eligible for the Yellow Ribbon Program and should be covered for the second Fall quarter. The BAH will also go into effect once my EAS hits.
The wait begins…
(I think) I’ve gathered as much information and completed as many steps as I can at this stage of the process. Once I get my VA certificate of eligibility, I’ll submit it along with the DePaul VA Educational Benefits Form. My DD-214 won’t come until I go on terminal leave from the Marine Corps in early August, but DePaul will accept it once I receive it.
From here, I need to complete the following:
- Math, writing and foreign language placement exams
- Pay my tuition deposit of $100
- Submit my acceptance of admission form
- Submit immunization form
- Keep my nose clean and leave active-duty Marine Corps service with an Honorable Discharge