If you are a recently discharged veteran, you have many options to help fund your education. Before you apply, it’s important that you review the available benefits. This guide is designed to help you better evaluate your eligibility and determine which financial benefits best meet your educational needs. For more detailed information on educational benefits, contact a Veterans Affairs representative directly at 1-888-GIBILL-1 (1-888-442-4551) or through the VA website at http://benefits.va.gov/gibill/.

Step 1: Understand Your Eligibility

Your eligibility for military educational benefits may be based on the nature of your discharge or service, whether you were active duty or reserve, when you began service and if you contributed to an education plan.

Commonly used educational benefits include:

  • Post 9/11 GI Bill® (Chapter 33)
    According to the VA, this benefit is for servicemembers who have at least 90 days of aggregate active duty service after September 10, 2001. It provides up to 36 months of educational benefits. Benefits for tuition are paid directly to the school, while living expenses are paid directly to the veteran. Most veterans in recent years have taken advantage of their eligibility for this program. For more information, visit http://benefits.va.gov/gibill/ or http://newgibill.org/post_911_gi_bill.
  • Montgomery GI Bill® Active Duty (MGIB-AD) (Chapter 30)
    According to the VA, this benefit is for servicemembers who have at least two years of active duty. It provides up to 36 months of educational benefits to eligible veterans. Monthly benefits are paid directly to the veteran. The program is the predecessor to the Post-9/11 GI Bill®. For more information, visit http://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill/mgib_ad.asp.
  • Veterans Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) (Chapter 31)
    If you have a service-connected disability, consider applying for Chapter 31 Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) services. This VA program creates an individualized plan to help you prepare for, find and maintain suitable jobs. This includes educational training, tutorial assistance and resume preparation. To print a guidebook, visit http://www.benefits.va.gov/VOCREHAB/docs/VRE-014_Flipbook.pdf. To apply, click on the “How to Apply” tab at http://www.benefits.va.gov/vocrehab/.
  • Montgomery GI Bill Selected Reserve (Chapter 1606)
    This is a benefit for those who have served in the selected reserve. For more information, visit http://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill/mgib_sr.asp.
  • Important Note:
    Chapter 1607 – Reserve Educational Assistance Program REAP
    This is a benefit for reservists who have been called to active duty in response to a war or national emergency. This program is no longer active, having been replaced by the Post-9/11 GI Bill®. REAP beneficiaries who were attending an educational institution on November 24, 2015, or during the last semester, quarter or term ending prior to that date, are eligible to continue to receive REAP benefits until November 25, 2019. For more information, visit http://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill/reap.asp.

Step 2: Compare Benefits

To help you compare how various benefit programs will cover costs at a specific institution, visit the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) Comparison Tool, found at https://www.vets.gov/gi-bill-comparison-tool. The tool will allow you to compare how benefit programs will cover educational costs and living expenses at your institution of choice. Enter your military status, the GI Bill® benefit you wish to use, your months of service, the names of all of the colleges you are considering, and whether or not you will be taking all of your courses online. You’ll be able to access detailed information about your anticipated expected GI Bill® benefits, including a housing allowance.

Step 3: Know the Total Cost of Attending School

The VA Comparison Tool is a great place to start, but it doesn’t necessarily compare every cost you may incur pursuing your education. Most schools provide a net cost calculator, typically found on the school’s website, that will allow you to estimate the total cost of attendance, including room and board, books, tuition, supplies, fees and other related expenses. Search for your school’s calculator at the U.S. Department of Education’s Net Price Calculator Center.

Step 4: Know What Benefits Your School Accepts

Contact your school’s designated veterans and military personnel office to learn what types of military educational benefits the school is approved for by the VA. Public and private institutions must follow specific regulations. Each school should be able to explain what type of educational benefits they process and can accept on your behalf.

Step 5: Apply for Veterans Educational Benefits

Once you’ve determined which benefits best meet your needs, it’s time to apply for them. You can apply in person at your local VA Regional Processing Office with a paper application (available for download at the VA’s eBenefits website) or apply online using the Veterans Online Application (VONAPP) System. To learn more, visit http://www.vabenefits.vba.va.gov/vonapp/default.asp.

Most applications will require confirmation of your service, which you can demonstrate with your DD214 (servicemember’s copy #4) and, if applicable, your kicker contract and/or proof of any buy-up. While filling out the application does not require you to use the benefit, you must still use your bank routing information to complete the application. The VA website states that this process typically takes one month for first-time claims and roughly one week for re-enrollment. Note: Wait times are generally longer in the fall when the volume of claims is higher. In the event of an unexpected delay, allow 8-12 weeks for the process to be completed.

Step 6: Confirm Approval

You can confirm the approval of benefits by taking your certificate of eligibility to your school’s certifying official (the Department of Veterans Affairs will provide you with this certificate). Create and log into your e-benefits account to verify your benefits status at the VA’s eBenefits page at https://www.ebenefits.va.gov/ebenefits/homepage.

Step 7: Explore Alternative Benefits and Financial Assistance

There are many additional educational benefits and types of aid you may be able to use in addition to or instead of your earned military educational benefits. It pays (quite literally!) to do a little investigation.

Additional Federal Veterans’ Education Benefits
  • The Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014 enables recently released veterans using Post-9/11 or Montgomery GI Bill® Active Duty to pay in-state tuition at public universities and community colleges. This means you no longer need to wait to establish residency in order to pay lower tuition in your new home state. This in-state status will also be granted to veterans’ spouses and children. See http://www.benefits.va.gov/GIBILL/docs/factsheets/Section_702_Factsheet.pdf
  • The Yellow Ribbon Education Program is another financial support source for student veterans attending college. Schools that participate grant additional funding support to be used toward tuition costs. Verify your eligibility and check if your school is a participant by visiting the VA’s Yellow Ribbon Program webpage.
    • Note: Funds for the Yellow Ribbon Program are limited by the participating school and thus may not be available for all eligible veterans.
Additional Non-military Federal Student Aid

There are also many types of non-military federal student aid available (e.g., Pell Grants and federal student loans). To determine eligibility, you must complete and submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Visit https://fafsa.ed.gov/ for more information. You can also use the FAFSA to help determine eligibility for certain state aid programs, so be sure to take the time to complete it.

Additional State of Illinois Student Aid
  • Illinois Student Assistance Military Service programs: These programs may cover your tuition costs and can sometimes be used in combination with some federal military educational benefits. If you reside in Illinois, the Illinois Veterans Grant or the Illinois National Guard Grant may be available to you.
  • Illinois Student Assistance Commission’s Medical Professions programs: These programs help pay for educational costs and include career placement options in certain medical professions. Applying for this benefit may extend the life of your earned military educational benefits. Find out more at http://www.isac.org/students/during-college/medical.html.
  • Nursing Education Scholarship Program and the Nurse Education Fellowship Program applications can be found at http://www.isac.org/students/during-college/medical.html.
  • State of Illinois Financial Aid, Scholarships and Grants: Private funding, scholarships, grants and other financial aid opportunities are available for students pursuing a healthcare occupational career in Illinois. Explore some of these options at http://nursing.illinois.gov/financial.htm#NURSEEDU.
Other Options to Consider

Many military organizations, such as the Military Officers Association of America and the Air Force Aid Society, offer educational assistance to military personnel, veterans and their dependents. Also, some employers offer tuition assistance to employees who are seeking to improve their skills in areas related to their jobs. It’s always worth discussing the options with your employer’s human resources office.

Additional Private Aid

Other organizations offer educational assistance to military personnel, veterans and their dependents.

When exploring other funding options, be mindful that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is! Guard your private information while online and only use trusted sources—if a site charges you a fee to process your application, for example, it may not be a viable organization. If your school has a veterans resource center or veterans’ services office, the staff there can direct you to a veterans financial aid specialist who can help you navigate your options.