How To be A GI Bill Expert: Know Your Payment

AP photo by Seth Perlman

Editor’s Note: A version of this article originally appeared on LinkedIn.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill is the greatest education benefit program since World War II and arguably just as successful. Since 2009, over 1.5 million people have used it to achieve their educational goals. I’ve experienced how the program helps, what works best, and what doesn’t work including payments sent to you and your school. Nothing is more cherished yet more misunderstood than payments under the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Master how the payments work because not doing so could leave you struggling financially.

Learn the three primary types of payments under the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

The benefit program has three types of payments including a monthly housing allowance that serves as a  living stipend, the tuition and fees to cover the cost of your school, and the books and supplies stipend.

The monthly housing allowance is paid in arrears, meaning your payment for attending school in March does not arrive until April. It’s prorated based on how many credit hours you’re taking. That’s why it’s best to take a course load that’s at least full time. If you take a course load at three-quarters time then you’ll only receive three-quarters of the housing allowance. Payments generally arrive the first business week of the month and you should budget accordingly.

Related: How to manage your finances as a student veteran »

The books and supplies stipend is also paid to you like the housing allowance, but it’s only up to $1,000 per academic year. This means it’s easy to use the entire stipend before you take summer courses. If so, don’t be surprised if you receive the next segment of the stipend after fall semester starts. Some readers may not even receive a housing allowance because they’re serving on active duty. You can’t receive the Department of Defense’s basic allowance for housing and the monthly housing allowance at the same time — that would be double dipping. But you can take steps to ensure you receive the housing allowance after you leave active duty.

If you’re enrolled in classes using the Post-9/11 GI Bill and separate from active duty, be it through retirement or Reserve service, send us a copy of your DD-214 through our secure email system. You can follow up by calling 1-888-GIBILL-1; ask that your file capture the day and month you left active duty and that you’d like to be paid a prorated housing allowance.

The tuition and fees are calculated based on several factors: the number of credit hours you’re taking, how much you’re eligible to receive, and the type of school you’re attending. Attending a public school is more advantageous because there is no capped amount VA will pay your school. If you attend a private school then there is a maximum amount VA will pay per academic year (currently $21,084). Some, but not all, private schools participate in VA’s Yellow Ribbon Program to off set the unmet tuition and fee charges. You can explore how much VA will pay by visiting the GI Bill Comparison Tool. Use it to research schools and pay attention to how well they perform with outcomes like graduation rates and median borrowing amounts.

Why the GI BIll doesn’t support you during the break between semesters.  

Your budget should account for any break between terms because the VA only pays the GI Bill for the time you’re in class, not the break between terms, semesters, or quarters. This is felt most during the winter break when students are away for nearly a month. Receiving break pay also uses entitlement of which there is precious little. If you were to receive break pay through four years of college you could easily use a semester’s worth of entitlement. The loss of break pay is the most controversial recent legislative change to the GI Bill because it affected everyone.

The end of break pay had one positive though: The money saved by cutting it was used to expand the Post-9/11 GI Bill to National Guardsmen and women who served on active duty. So the next time you complain about not receiving a housing allowance through the winter break, remember that our fellow veterans get to use the GI Bill to go to school.

FAFSA is your friend.

One common question I hear is whether you can use the GI Bill and receive federal financial aid. Not only can you receive federal financial aid, but I encourage everyone to apply for it through the FAFSA. Pay special attention to Pell grants as a way to supplement your income and rest-assured there’s no law prohibiting you from receiving the GI Bill and a federal student loan at the same time. Of course, all the caveats remain when taking out loans so be sure to do your research and take only what you need.

How a person or a computer handles your GI Bill manually vs. automatically.

Understanding your payment involves understanding how VA handles the GI Bill. VA has an automated processing system designed to receive, calculate, and send payments to you through the Department of Treasury.

When an enrollment certification is automated, it goes through a claims processing system and is not reviewed by a person; this generally takes three to four business days. A manual claim is removed from the claims processing system and reviewed/approved by an employee. “Automated versus manual” explains why your payment could take less than one week to process instead of several. This is why it’s not okay to compare your GI Bill payment to a fellow student. You may be attending the same school, but your enrollment certification could be different based on the number of credit hours or charged tuition and fees.

Understanding your payment and how it works is crucial to maximizing your GI Bill and the return on investment. Don’t underestimate the complexity of the program and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a GI Bill expert.

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