5 Ways Student Veterans Can Maximize GI Bill® Benefits

Want to make the most of your GI Bill benefits but aren't sure how to maximize their usage? Keep reading to learn our tips and tricks.
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  • Federal GI Bill benefits help cover the cost of higher education for up to 36 months.
  • Maximizing how you use these benefits can lead to substantially more financial assistance.
  • Many service members can use their benefits without fear they will expire.

Through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the federal GI Bill provides benefits that cover some or all costs associated with pursuing higher education after an honorable discharge.

Service members and student veterans looking to attend college often rely heavily on these funds to earn a degree. However, they may not be maximizing their benefits.

On this page, student veterans can learn the tips and tricks needed to get as much value and support out of their GI Bill benefits as possible.

By following these steps, you may even be able to complete more than one degree.

1. Take at Least One In-Person Class Each Term

The amount of money you receive for a housing allowance as part of your GI Bill is based on whether you take classes on campus. Students who study solely online receive less than those who take at least one in-person class each semester.

The amount of money you receive is determined by the average cost of housing in your school's area and your GI Bill's award amount. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs provides a comparison tool to see how much you can receive for housing.

2. Make Sure to Take Advantage of All Financial Aid

Outside of the money you receive as part of your GI Bill, you can also qualify for institutional, state, and federal financial aid.

Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) each year of enrollment. Governments and universities can use this information to decide how much need-based aid you are qualified to receive. Military-specific scholarships may also request these details.

Remember, your GI Bill benefits do not count as income, so this can raise your qualifying aid amount. Many schools require FAFSA information when handing out scholarships and grants, making this step additionally important.

Lastly, the U.S. Department of Education requires that you fill out the FAFSA every year you are in school to provide updated earnings information that can affect your aid package.

3. Maximize the Number of Credits Taken

Under the current rules of the GI Bill, student veterans can receive 36 months of benefits. The bill does not limit the number of credits you can take per semester. However, many schools set their own maximum credit limits.

The majority of bachelor's degrees consist of approximately 120 credits. So, if you are trying to earn a degree and want to use your benefits right away, taking a few extra credits can ensure you graduate within the 36-month limit. You could take 18 credits each semester and four credits each summer and complete the required 120 credits in just 36 months.

Additionally, these 36 months of education don't have to be taken consecutively. You may decide to take breaks in your education. So, for example, you could take classes for nine months (two semesters) now and then use the remaining 27 months (six semesters) of your GI Bill benefits when you continue your education later.

Learners looking to maximize their benefits should speak with a student advisor.

4. Strategically Use Your Benefits

For military members who left active service before 2013, their GI Bill benefits remain usable for 15 years. Those who were discharged on or after Jan. 1, 2013, have benefits that never expire.

Because of this, it's important to think strategically about how you use them. For instance, completing the first two years of a bachelor's degree at a community college costs significantly less than attending a four-year school for the entire program.

By paying out of pocket for your associate degree, you still haven't touched any of your educational benefits. And you would already be halfway through the requirements for a bachelor's degree. Motivated students who want to earn both a bachelor's and master's degree may be able to time their programs in a way that allows their GI Bill benefits to cover both programs.

When thinking through this plan, remember that GI Bill benefits cover the full in-state tuition rate of degrees earned at public institutions, but only up to $25,162.14 per year for degrees from private institutions.

The learning doesn't need to stop here

Explore the rest of our collection of financial education resources to continue your journey to a healthy financial future.

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5. Test Out of Classes

Rather than spending 8-16 weeks taking a class on a subject you already know, consider taking College Level Examination Program (CLEP) tests. These tests, offered through the Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support (DANTES) program, allow you to test out of courses. The exam can be taken at many colleges and universities.

CLEP offers 34 exams in introductory topics. Nearly 3,000 colleges currently accept these examinations in exchange for course credit. Passing grades on these tests means fewer credits are needed to complete your overall coursework.

Frequently Asked Questions About GI Bill Benefits

How much money does the GI Bill give you?

Several factors determine the amount of educational funding you receive under the GI Bill. For starters, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs must decide what percentage of eligibility you receive.

Those who served at least 36 months of active duty receive 100% eligibility. This rate continues to decrease based on the amount of time served. Those who served more than three months but less than six months receive 50% of benefits.

The GI Bill pays the set percentage (based on eligibility) for in-state tuition and fees at public colleges and universities. For private schools, the GI Bill pays a maximum of $25,162.14 as of 2022. This means that even if you qualify for 100% eligibility, you would still need to pay for any expenses over and above the maximum with your own money.

How long does a GI Bill last?

Under the current rules, the GI Bill covers up to 36 months of educational costs. It is up to the student veteran to decide how they use the funding. Spouses and dependents may be eligible for these education benefits as well.

Some students use the funds to cover their associate or bachelor's degrees. Others decide to save their benefits for master's or doctoral programs.

Veterans whose service ended before Jan. 1, 2013, have 15 years to use their GI Bill benefits after their last 90 days of active service. This rule changed as of 2013. Those who were honorably discharged from active service on or after Jan. 1, 2013, face no expiration date on benefits.

Can you lose your GI Bill benefits?

While your GI Bill benefits cannot technically be taken away or lost, there are things student veterans can do that would disqualify them from receiving financial assistance. For instance, one of the requirements of receiving the benefit is attending class.

If you fail to attend classes or do not attend the minimum number required to pass a class, the GI Bill will not cover that course — leaving you to pay the expense out of pocket.

GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government Web site at https://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill/.