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From Combat Boots to Cubicles: How to Make the Most of Your GI Bill Benefits

This year, more than 400,000 veterans will apply for assistance with educational expenses through the new Post-9/11 GI Bill, according to Veterans Administration (VA) estimates.The bill, which went into effect on August 1, 2009, provides education benefits for servicemen and women who have served on active duty for 90 or more days since Sept. 10, 2001, and it offers greater education benefits than any previous VA program.

If you're one of those recent veterans considering a return to the classroom, here are four strategies to help you make the most of your GI Bill benefits, and get the best education to fit your needs.

Shop Around
The GI Bill covers expenses at most accredited colleges or universities, but some schools are just more military-friendly than others. More than 1,700 colleges and universities have been designated as Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges (SOC) by the Department of Defense. SOC schools work together to make it easier for military members and veterans to transfer credits when needed, and complete their programs in a timely manner.

Beyond SOC, some schools offer additional services for veterans. Before enrolling, ask whether the school has a specialist in the financial aid office to assist with military benefits, says Robert Martin, president of the Imagine America Foundation, which provides awards and scholarships to military students."Find an institution that has that ingrained commitment to the military," Martin says. "If you go to a school that has a track record [with military students], they'll usually have somebody on the other side who's probably been through the transition from military life to student life, and they can hold your hands."

Survey the Field
Going back to school may be the fulfillment of a dream, but for most veterans, it's not the final objective. It's the means to an end - a successful civilian career. If it seems daunting to determine what you want to do for the rest of your life, consider the work you've been doing in the military and whether you'd like to continue doing related work. Find out how many credits your school will award toward your degree based on military training; more of these credits will likely apply if you're pursuing a degree in a similar field. "Transfer credit could significantly shorten the amount of time needed to complete your degree and reduce the cost of your education," says Jim Hendrickson, VP of military education at Colorado Technical University. "This makes sticking with a military career field a tempting option.

"However, it's a choice between doing what's practical and doing what one loves or wants to do," Hendrickson continues. "Make the decision based on your personal choice and counsel from friends and family, along with consideration for time and funding constraints." In making the decision, consider the likely career outcomes of the degree program, likely changes in the industry of choice, and whether such a career will help you achieve your goals for lifestyle, compensation and advancement.

Get Your Credit
Most military service and military training programs can translate into academic credits, and many veterans have academic credits from former school attendance. It's your responsibility to make sure you get the credits you've earned, which can save you money and time. "If necessary, request an unofficial transcript review before starting school to get a good idea of what credits are likely to transfer to the degree program," Hendrickson says. "Ask what degree programs will provide the most transfer credits based on your transcripts. Verify that your transcripts are correct and include all applicable training."

And don't feel like you have to do it all alone. "The [school's] military liaison is not just for recruitment, but also to help you translate your military experiences into academic credits," Martin says.

Milk Your Military Experience
While the new GI bill pays more than ever before, it's still not the only financial help available to student veterans. Numerous organizations and foundations offer scholarships, awards and other programs to help veterans who are returning to the classroom, so why not take advantage of these opportunities?

Many schools offer scholarships and award grants based on military service. "These can fall under general veteran status or cross into academic and sports scholarships where veteran status can make the candidate more competitive," Hendrickson says. "Even the smallest scholarship can mean the difference between needing a part time job to pay for school or affect the size of a student loan later."

Outside groups such as the Imagine America Foundation also award grants and scholarships to veterans returning to school. Ask your school's VA certifying official if they know about such programs, or talk with others in veteran student organizations. You can also find opportunities with a quick online search.

The best advice is to give school a chance, Hendrickson says. "With the benefits being offered to veterans today, there is no reason not to give college a try."

Disclaimer: This is a private website that is not affiliated with the U.S. government, U.S. Armed Forces or Department of Veteran Affairs. U.S. government agencies have not reviewed this information. This site is not connected with any government agency. If you would like to find more information about benefits offered by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, please visit the official U.S. government web site for veterans benefits at http://www.va.org.


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