College Guide for Veterans and Servicemembers

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Deciding to Attend College after the Military

Making the decision to go to college after leaving the military can be difficult. There are vast differences between enlisted life and college life. Going from the structure of day to day military life with your comrades to one filled with classrooms of young adults can be difficult to imagine.

With your years of experience in the armed forces it’s important to evaluate what you are looking for in a school and degree program. You may find yourself more comfortable in a distance or online learning environment than one where you commute to campus on a daily basis.

The Department of Defense offers Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support (DANTES) to provide programs and services to those veterans and service members who want to pursue higher education. DANTES offers a plethora of information on higher education and the resources available to you.

American flag blowing in the wind

Online Education vs On Campus Education

Today’s Veterans are faced with the choice between attending college through the traditional route of on campus or the more flexible path of online. Many veterans and servicemembers are choosing the online route because of the ability to work around family and work obligations.

Attending college online can also ease the transition between the military and college by allowing you to work at your own pace without the hustle and bustle that can come with an on campus program. This can also be a struggle for some though, without the comradery of an in person student veteran group or office you can visit, you may find it difficult to find the support you want. It’s important to understand the offices and student organizations available to you. If you do choose an online program reach out to a local veteran group or ensure you keep in contact with your friends and family to avoid any isolation you may feel.

When it comes to deciding which path to take it’s important to remember that the Post 9/11 GI Bill will cover an online degree, so that shouldn’t be a deciding factor for you. Many online colleges also offer tuition discounts for military members so reach out to any colleges you are interested in to see what financial aid is available for both options.

Receive Credit for What You Already Know

After learning a countless number of skills and gaining training in a trade, it can be unclear whether you should be entering a Bachelor’s degree program, or pursuing a Master’s degree. Even if you never completed a college degree prior to your service, your experience in the Military can translate into college credits through a Credit-By-Exams program. One such program is College-Level Examination Program, or CLEP, which gives you the opportunity to take one of the 33 college subject exams offered through DANTES. These exams are available at 1,800 universities across the country and can be used at 2,900 colleges.

CLEP exams are available at no cost for military personnel, the website College Board offers an eligibility chart for easy reference.

Resources to help you explore your college options

Paying for College after Serving your Country

Students who choose to attend college online through distance learning can still take advantage of the benefits afforded under the GI Bill. They will continue to receive coverage for tuition, books and supplies at the traditional rate a student would be allowed if they attended on campus. The main difference between those attending on campus and online is the Monthly Housing Allowance (MHA). Typically, the MHA changes based on the ZIP code that your school is located in. Those attending solely online are eligible for half the national average of the Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) regardless of which school they attend according to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs.

The Montgomery GI Bill

In 1944 the GI Bill, also known as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, was signed into law. This Bill affords many benefits to the men and women who have served in the United States Armed Forces. Whether you are currently serving in the military or are a veteran, the GI Bill can offer more opportunities and better benefits when pursuing higher education and securing a career post discharge.

Montgomery GI Bill Eligibility

To be eligible for the GI Bill you must meet the two requirements below along with the requirements from one of four different categories depending on when you served. Military.com lists these as:

  • Honorable Discharge
  • Highschool diploma or equivalent certificate

To view the specific categories and eligibility requirements visit Military.com’s Montgomery GI Bill page. Most of those using the GI Bill now will utilize the Post-9/11 GI Bill as a way to pay for education instead of the traditional Montgomery GI Bill based on when they served.

Post-9/11 GI Bill

The Post-9/11 GI Bill is available to those who served on active duty after September 10, 2001. If you served for at least 90 days after that date and were honorably discharged you are eligible for this benefit. The percentage available to you is determined by how long you served on active duty. The Veterans Benefit Administration offers the chart below as a reference point.

This chart shows the timeline and the payable benefit for individuals looking to use their GI Bill funding.

Benefits chart for Post 9-11 GI Bill

Yellow Ribbon Program

Along with the Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits, some institutions participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program. This program allows colleges and universities who voluntarily enter into an agreement with the VA to fund tuition and fee expenses that exceed the amount payable under the Post 9/11 GI Bill.

The university can choose to contribute a certain dollar amount above those expenses and the VA will match the contribution. To be eligible for this program you must enroll in an approved program at an institution that participates in the Yellow Ribbon Program and you must be qualified for the Post 9/11 GI Bill at 100% of the maximum payment amount.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs maintains a list of all participating institutions on their Yellow Ribbon Program Information page.

Forever GI Bill

On August 17, 2017, the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act, better known as the Forever GI BIll, was signed into law. This enhanced version of the GI Bill expands education benefits for service members, Veterans, families and survivors.

Some of the changes took effect immediately, others will go into effect by the end of 2022. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offers an outline of the changes to the GI Bill on their website; we’ve included it below for easy reference.

Effective Immediately:

  • Priority Enrollment
    • VA will improve outreach and transparency to Veterans and servicemembers by providing information on whether institutions of higher learning administer a priority enrollment system that allows certain student Veterans to enroll in courses earlier than other students.
  • Independent Study at Technical Schools and Non-Institutions of Higher Learning
    • Beneficiaries will now be able to use their educational assistance to pursue accredited independent study (e.g., online learning) at non-IHLs. The non-IHLs must be area career and technical education schools that provide postsecondary level education or postsecondary vocational institutions. Note: This change does not apply to Dependents’ Educational Assistance program beneficiaries.
  • Priority Enrollment
    • VA will improve outreach and transparency to Veterans and servicemembers by providing information on whether institutions of higher learning administer a priority enrollment system that allows certain student Veterans to enroll in courses earlier than other students.
  • Elimination of the 15-year Time Limit to use the Post-9/11 GI Bill
    • The law removes the 15-year time limit for the use of Post-9/11 GI Bill benefit for those whose last discharge or release from active duty is on or after January 1, 2013, children of deceased service members who became entitled to Post-9/11 GI Bill benefit on or after January 1, 2013, and all spouses using Fry Scholarship.
  • Assistance for Students Affected by School Closure and Certain Program Disapprovals
    • Students may be able to receive back entitlement charged against them if their school closed while they were attending
  • Independent Study at Technical Schools and Non-Institutions of Higher Learning
    • Beneficiaries will now be able to use their educational assistance to pursue accredited independent study (e.g., online learning) at non-IHLs. The non-IHLs must be area career and technical education schools that provide postsecondary level education or postsecondary vocational institutions. Note: This change does not apply to Dependents’ Educational Assistance program beneficiaries.
  • REAP Eligibility Credited Toward Post 9/11 GI Bill Program
    • Reservists who established eligibility to educational assistance under the Reserve Educational Assistance Program (REAP) before November 25, 2015, and lost it due to the program’s sunset may elect to have that service credited towards the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
  • Work Study Expansion
    • The law removes the expiration date for qualifying work-study activities.

Effective January 1, 2018:

  • GI BIll Monthly Housing Allowance
    • Those who use Post-9/11 GI Bill on or after January 1, 2018, will receive a monthly housing allowance based on the Department of Defense basic housing allowance (BAH) for monthly housing rates

Effective August 1, 2018:

  • Yellow Ribbon Extension to Fry and Purple Heart Recipients
    • Recipients of the Fry Scholarship and Purple Heart may use the Yellow Ribbon Program.
  • Reserve Duty that Counts toward Post 9/11 Eligibility
    • The time that a Reservist was ordered to active duty to receive authorized medical care, to be medically evaluated for disability, or to complete a Department of Defense health care study on or after September 11, 2001, now counts as active duty toward eligibility for the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
  • Reserve Component Benefits
    • The law authorizes service by Guard and Reserve members under 10 U.S.C 12304a and 12304b to receive Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits.
  • Purple Heart Recipients
    • Servicemembers and honorably discharged Veterans who were awarded a Purple Heart on or after September 11, 2001, will be entitled to Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits at the 100-percent benefit level for up to 36 months.
  • Pilot Programs for Technology Curses
    • VA will develop a pilot program to provide eligible Veterans with the opportunity to enroll in high technology education programs that VA determines provides training and skills sought by employers in a relevant field or industry.
  • Monthly Housing based on campus where students attends most classes
    • The law requires the monthly housing allowance under the Post-9/11 GI Bill program to be calculated based on the zip code of the campus where the student physically attends the majority of classes, rather than the location of the school where the student is enrolled.
  • Month Housing allowance during active duty service
    • VA will prorate the monthly housing allowance under the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Currently, those who leave active duty can’t receive their housing allowance until the beginning of the next full month after being released from active duty. With this change, the student will receive housing payments effective the day of discharge.
  • Informing schools about beneficiary entitlement
    • VA must make available to educational institutions information about the amount of educational assistance to which a beneficiary is entitled. A beneficiary may elect not to provide the information to an educational institution.
  • Changes to transfer of Benefit
    • Veterans who transferred entitlement to a dependent can now designate a new dependent if the original dependent dies. If the Veteran dies, a dependent who received transferred entitlement can now designate a new eligible dependent of the Veteran to transfer any of the dependent’s remaining entitlement.
  • Changes to survivors’ and dependents’ education assistance
    • The new law decreases the amount of entitlement that new eligible individuals will receive under the Survivors’ and Dependents’ Educational Assistance (DEA) program from 45 months to 36 months.
  • Changes to licensing and certification charges
    • Entitlement charges for licensing and certification exams and national tests under the Post-9/11 GI Bill will be prorated based on the actual amount of the fee charged for the test. This lowers the entitlement charge to benefits.

Effective August 1, 2019:

  • More benefits for science, technology, engineering and math programs
    • VA will provide up to nine months of additional Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to eligible individuals who are enrolled in a STEM field program of education.

Effective August 1, 2020:

  • Consolidation of Benefit Levels
    • Eliminates the 40-percent benefit level and expands the 60 percent benefit level under the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

Effective August 1, 2022:

  • Yellow Ribbon Extension to Active Duty Servicemembers
    • Active duty service members may use the Yellow Ribbon Program.

Applying for GI Bill Benefits

If you aren’t sure if you qualify or have any Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, you can check your eligibility with a Statement of Benefits available through the VA Website. Once you know which benefits are available, you can submit an education application through the same website.

Required information for the Education Benefits Application

  • Social Security Number
  • Military history
  • Information about the school or training facility you want to attend

You will also be asked about your bank account information and your education history, though these items are not required to complete the application.

There are a number of Veterans Service Officers available to help you if you struggle to complete the application on your own. The Department of Veterans Affairs maintains a database of accredited VSO Representatives who are there to help if you need it.

It typically takes 30 days to process an application, and if they need more information they will let you know by mail. Otherwise, you’ll receive a Certificate of Eligibility once your application has been approved.

Visit the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs GI Bill website for more information.

Additional Tuition Assistance Programs Available for Service Members and Veterans

Each branch of the military offers internal programs to help their veterans and members attend college. We’ve outlined some of the options available for each branch below.

Coast Guard

National Guard

U.S. Marine Corps

U.S. Navy

U.S. Air Force

U.S. Army

Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

Most student veterans assume they don’t need to complete the FAFSA since the GI Bill is already covering the costs of their education. Completing the FAFSA isn’t just about qualifying for loans, it gives them access to grants and scholarships available through the Federal and State government. There may be a lot more opportunities available to help pay for college than student veterans realize.

Scholarships Available to Military Veterans

There are a plethora of scholarship opportunities available from private companies and individual branches of the military for service members, veterans and their dependents:

Military Loan Repayment Programs

If you completed a degree without using the GI Bill, there are many different loan repayment and forgiveness programs available to those on active duty and veterans. We’ve outlined some of the most popular ones below:

Army Student Loan Repayment

The Army offers loan forgiveness of a maximum of $65,000. These repayments are issued for up to 33.33% of the Soldier’s student loans paid annually, or $1,500, whichever is greater. This is also available for those in the Army Reserves, although the repayment amount is less at only 15%.

Army Reserve College Loan Repayment Program

When you enlist in the Army Reserve for at least six years, you are eligible to receive up to $50,000 for selected specialties to repay college loans.

Health Professions Student Loan Repayment Program

The Health Professions Student Loan Repayment Program (HPLRP) is available to eligible health professionals that have student loans to repay. To be HPLRP eligible you have to meet certain requirements.

Air Force Judge Advocate General’s Corps Loan Repayment Program

After you have completed your first year as a JAG Officer you may be eligible for the JAG Corps student loan repayment program. This program pays up to $65,000 toward student loans. Eligible loans include those taken out for undergraduate and graduate programs or law school.

Reserve Student Loan Repayment Program

Each branch of Reserve units; Army National Guard, Army Reserves, Air National Guard and Navy Reserves, offer unique repayment programs. Each branch has its own eligibility requirements and maximum amount repayable. They will also have a minimum enlistment period (most often 6 years).

Veterans Total and Permanent Disability Discharge

A total and permanent disability discharge (TPD) relieves you from having to repay certain federal education loans you may have. These loans include the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan, Federal Family Education Loan, Federal Perkins Loan or the service obligation for the TEACH Grant.

More information can be found at the Disability Discharge website of the U.S. Department of Education.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness

For those who have already completed their education and are working for the military or qualifying public service job for at least 10 years, you may be eligible for a complete discharge of your federal student loans.

Examples of qualifying public service jobs are:

  • Law enforcement
  • Early childhood education
  • Public safety
  • Public health
  • Public education
  • Emergency management
  • Military service

The Federal Student Aid website of the U.S. Department of Education offers in depth information on qualifications and eligibility requirements.

It’s important to research the repayment and forgiveness options available to you. Most have specific requirements you must meet to be eligible. If you are struggling to figure out your options, reach out to Veterans Affairs for guidance and advice.

Succeeding in College as a Veteran or Servicemember

Making the choice to further your education after military service requires a unique transition and considerations that civilian students may not face. After you are admitted there are ways to help prepare for and succeed in your college career. Knowing how to manage your time and finding the studying process that works for you can alleviate the stress you feel during the transition and have an overall positive impact on the mental health concerns you may face moving forward.

Transition from Soldier to Student

Making the transition to college from the military might feel like moving to a foreign country. Traditional students, just out of high school, don’t have the same priorities and experiences members of the military have. This can create a sense of culture shock, like visiting a foreign country and not speaking the language.

Students coming from the military are disciplined, structured and have the skills to handle high pressure situations with relative ease. These skills can also help students find success in a college setting. However, utilizing what the military has taught them and tailoring those experiences to help them succeed in college can be a challenge.

Understanding that veterans or servicemembers may have different priorities from from their fellow students, and knowing where to look for support during their path to a degree is the first step. Encourage them to take the time to learn about the veteran services offered at their respective college, and how they can participate in those resources. Most universities understand the differences and unique challenges student veterans face and offer individual departments and student groups tailored to help them succeed.

Deciding to pursue an online degree can lessen the uncertainty these students may feel during this transition, since they have the ability to study from anywhere. This allows them to remain close to their friends, family and comrades without the same culture shock on campus students may struggle with.  

Student veterans are often more selective in the activities and courses they pursue since they most likely have more responsibilities in their personal lives than then traditional student. They are also more likely to have stronger relationships with the faculty and staff, compared to their civilian counterparts, since their experiences lead them to be more mature and seek those who can expand their knowledge.

Utilizing the opportunities available to them through their college or local veteran groups can help you find your path to success in college and the career that comes after.

Time Management and Study Tips for Veterans

In the Military, most of your day is planned to the minute. Moving to a college environment, even if they attend online, can be a culture shock. Utilizing some of the skills they have learned can improve your college experience immensely.

  • Add structure to your days
    • While they were enlisted, the Military managed their time for them. They controlled where they needed to be and when. College doesn’t have that same structure. Roughly 25% of a student’s time will be spent in lectures. Where they spend the rest of their time will be completely up to them. Creating a schedule can add much needed structure to their, days and give them a feeling of normalcy.
  • Create a study plan
    • In the military there is almost always a plan of action. It should be the same for those attending college. When these students create their schedule, they should include a plan for studying. Determine goals for the week on Monday, focus on assignments due or areas of struggle and devote time to those tasks.
  • Have more than one study place
    • Having only one place that they feel comfortable studying can create a host of problems. If the study space becomes incompatible due to noise or distractions, it can be difficult to adjust to a new space. Encourage them to take the time to find 2 or 3 places they can study, and rotate through them on a consistent basis.
    • For those on campus, this could mean working out of multiple libraries or study halls. If they are completing online courses find a local library or coffee shop you feel comfortable in.
  • Take breaks when you get restless
    • Schedule breaks frequently. It’s easy to become caught up in work and studies. There are apps and websites that can schedule in frequent breaks and keep the student’s mind and body fresh.
  • Focus on the task at hand
    • It can often be difficult to focus on certain tasks, especially if the topic doesn’t necessarily interest them. It’s important to find ways to stay engaged in what they are doing. If they are struggling to focus, have them split their time into smaller chunks with smaller goals so they can feel some accomplishment along the way.
  • Utilize Apps and Programs
    • There are currently a plethora of programs and applications available that can help students stay focused. They have the ability to block distracting websites as a whole or partially during specific times to encourage focusing on their work.
  • Compromise when things get difficult
    • Struggling with a task isn’t easy for anyone to admit. Recognizing the struggle and knowing how to handle it can be the difference between succeeding or falling behind. If the struggle comes from a specific assignment or topic, reach out to a professor or teaching assistant and see if they can offer any advice to help.
    • If the difficulty comes from a schedule or time management issue, reevaluate the current calendar and see if there are available scheduling changes to allow for more time.
  • Ask for help if things aren’t working
    • Reaching out to college advisors, fellow students, other veterans or teachers can help veterans and service members examine why something isn’t working the way they would like to, and find ways to get back on the right path.
  • Form a study group with fellow veterans and classmates
    • There are student veteran groups or a veteran department available at most universities that can help their fellow students get in contact with people who have similar experiences. Having the comradery of being surrounded by service members who may have had similar experiences can add a level of comfort when they may be struggling.  

Mental Health Concerns for Veterans and Servicemembers

Student veterans face unique challenges when it comes to mental health. Over the past decade more than 2 million Americans have been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, an increasing number of these return home with behavioral health and complex mental challenges. Unlike physical challenges, these are often invisible.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Depression and Traumatic Brain Injury are more common than you can imagine. Roughly one-third of servicemembers who have been deployed for Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom report symptoms of a cognitive or mental health condition. Knowing the signs of these conditions and recognizing that you need help can move you towards a path of recovery much quicker than ignoring what you feel.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, can be the result of terrifying psychological shock, intense physical trauma, or a frightening combination of both. It is a potentially debilitating mental condition that plagues the sufferer with triggers which can cause flashbacks, nightmares or sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, and more. Both veterans and servicemembers are susceptible to suffering from PTSD; the symptoms include:

Signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

  • Hypervigilance
  • Irritability
  • Self-destructive behavior
  • Heightened reactions
  • Anxiety
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Agitation
  • Hostility
  • Flashbacks
  • Fear
  • Mistrust
  • Guilt or loneliness
  • Emotional detachment
  • Insomnia or nightmares

Receiving treatment before these symptoms escalate can lead to a better quality of life for them and their future. It’s common to think that PTSD will just go away over time, but if you have had symptoms for over a year this is highly unlikely. Untreated PTSD no only impacts your day to day life, but it can also have lasting impacts on those you love. It’s not uncommon for those suffering to pull away from friends, family and the things they once enjoyed.

It’s important to seek treatment for any of the symptoms above. There are many mental health problems that share the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. For instance, feeling emotionally detached or having trouble concentrating can be linked to depression. Seeking help from a medical provider can provide a firm diagnosis and point to the correct course of treatment.   

Depression

Clinical depression (or major depressive disorder) is a common, serious, medical illness. It negatively impacts a person’s feelings, actions, and thoughts. Depression can also impact physical health, and its symptoms can vary significantly from one sufferer to the next. Symptoms of depression in veterans or serviceembers can include, but are not limited to:

Signs of Depression

  • Feeling restless
  • Low self-esteem
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Sleeping too much or not enough
  • Feeling unworthy or guilty
  • Drinking more alcohol or caffeine than normal
  • Change in eating habits
  • Gaining or losing weight
  • Feeling sad or helpless
  • Losing interest in or not getting pleasure from daily activities

According to the Army Study to Assess Risk and Resilience in Servicemembers, the risk of depression in servicemembers is roughly 5 times higher than civilians. Returning home after a deployment can create a type of culture shock. Service members have become so accustomed to the fast pace and circumstances of deployment, coming home and leading a “normal” life can be very difficult.

Traumatic Brain Injury

A traumatic brain injury (or a TBI) is a jolt or blow to the head that disrupts the brain’s normal function. The most common form of TBI is a concussion. Traumatic brain injuries can be classified as mild, moderate or severe. Both non-deployed and deployed military personnel are susceptible to brain injury through a variety of events, including: falls, blasts, assaults, sports, car crashes, fragments and bullets.

Symptoms of a TBI

  • Concentration problems
  • Gaps in memory
  • Difficulty finding words
  • Attention problems
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Sleep problems
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Mood swings
  • Vision problems

Those with a TBI face a unique set of challenges. Not only can they experience some or all of the symptoms above, they are left more prone to PTSD and depression. This invisible illness can make it difficult to complete the simplest tasks and doing things that seem mundane to most of us take a large amount of thought for those with a TBI.

Coping with a Traumatic Brain Injury

  • Carry a small notebook and pen with you to keep track of important things.
  • Avoid caffeine, which may contribute to symptoms
  • Take part in a hobby or recreational activity
  • Have a daily routine
  • Get enough sleep

Improving Your Mental Health

Those attending college after serving in the armed forces face more mental health concerns than their civilian counterparts, but there are many resources available to veterans and servicemembers while embarking on this new chapter of life.

The majority of colleges and universities offer some form of healthcare for their students. Services are available for both physical and mental health. Reaching out to the Student Health Services department at college can provide access to professionals who will offer help via their services. Many universities understand the concerns and struggles veterans face, and there is often a veteran services department or student group that can offer support.

While attending college online, some students may feel like these services aren’t available to them. The truth is, many schools offer the same services through online or phone counseling. For those who don’t feel comfortable reaching out to their university, Veterans Affairs offers a handful of services to help veterans and servicemembers with the mental health struggles they face. There are also unique organizations whose sole purpose is working with veterans who have returned home and continue to struggle with day to day life.

One such organization is the Wounded Warrior Project. It’s important to remember that not every wound is visible and that asking for assistance doesn’t equate to weakness. It takes a great deal of strength to ask for help.

Mental Health Resources for Veterans in College