The GI Bill is a great education benefit for service members and veterans that helps pay for college, graduate school and approved training programs.
First introduced in 1944, the GI Bill has evolved several times, most recently in 2017 under the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act, better known as the "Forever GI Bill." It includes payment of tuition and fees, a monthly housing allowance, and a stipend for textbooks and supplies for up to 36 months.
If you are considering going back to school this fall, you may be wondering how the COVID-19 national emergency has affected the GI Bill program. The good news is that Congress has taken steps to ensure that veterans continue to receive educational assistance during these unprecedented times by passing S. 3503, signed by President Donald Trump on March 21.
Here are the top 10 things you need to know about using your GI Bill Benefit in 2020.
1. Course Conversion from In-Person Instruction to Online Training
In the interest of public health, most teaching institutions have altered their curricula to accommodate the need for quarantine and social distancing by offering virtual classrooms and online instruction. The new law allows the Department of Veterans Affairs to pay education benefits for programs that have been converted from resident training to online training, even if online training has not been approved. Keep in mind that the law authorizes this special authority only from March 1, 2020, to Dec. 21, 2020.
2. Grading Scale Changes
Following the change to online instruction, many schools opted to change their grading scales from letter grades (A, B, C) to pass/fail courses. The new law specifies that you will continue to receive your benefits as long as the classes you take count toward your pursued degree.
Some students have expressed concerns regarding how this change may affect future admission to graduate programs that require a specific grade point average for selection. To address this issue, most graduate schools are putting waivers in place or have opted not to adjust students' GPAs based on one semester or quarter of pass/fail classes due to the current health crisis.
3. School Closures
According to the VA, if your school closes due to a national emergency, your GI Bill payments will continue through the end of the term or for 28 days, whichever is sooner.
4. On-the-Job Training and Apprenticeship
Thinking about pursuing a trade or an apprenticeship in a field like roofing, plumbing, firefighting or law enforcement? The GI Bill training program can help you pay for books and supplies. It may also provide you with a monthly housing allowance (MHA). Before you sign up, make sure the program is approved for VA education benefits. You can check with your VA regional office here. If your training program changes to an online format due to COVID-19, you will continue to receive your MHA.
5. Housing Benefits
The GI Bill provides a Monthly Housing Allowance (MHA) based on the ZIP code of the campus where you attend most of your classes. The MHA is generally the same as Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) for an E-5 with dependents. You are not required to live on campus to receive an MHA. To figure out your expected MHA, consult the VA's GI Bill Comparison Tool. Search by school name or type and click on the results.
Before the outbreak of COVID-19, students attending school online received only 50% of the national average BAH as their MHA. The new legislation has changed this policy temporarily to allow students who moved from in-person instruction to online classes to continue to receive their MHA. Currently enrolled and new students can receive the resident housing rate when in school from March 1, 2020, to Dec. 21, 2020.
6. Leaving School Due to COVID-19
If you need to leave school because you contracted COVID-19, the VA will pay you through your last day of attendance, but not through the end of the school term. In these situations, the law does not allow the VA to continue payments beyond the last day of attendance. Be aware that by withdrawing from school, you may receive an overpayment of MHA. Your school will notify the VA that you have withdrawn, and the VA will bill you for any overpayment. Ask your School Certifying Official (SCO) to report your withdrawal due to COVID-19 as a mitigating circumstance.
7. Books and Supplies
Post-9/11 GI Bill recipients are eligible to receive the VA Book and Supply Stipend, up to $1,000 per academic year. This stipend aids students in covering the cost of supplies, equipment, books and other educational tools. The $1,000 stipend equals approximately $41 per credit hour for a maximum of 12 hours per semester. For each semester you enroll full-time, you will receive $500. The money is paid directly to the student at the beginning of the school term.
8. Communicating with the VA About Your GI Bill Benefits
The VA is asking GI Bill students to submit a current email address to increase its capability for a paperless environment. You can update your email address by filing a request through the "Ask a Question" portal. The VA will contact you with important benefit updates and information. Additionally, the VA is accepting some documentation only by electronic submission.
9. Get to Know Your School Certifying Official (SCO)
Educational Institutions that receive VA funds have a designated School Certifying Official (SCO) to act as a representative for the university to the VA for GI Bill-eligible students. If you have questions about enrollment changes, certification, course changes or payment of allowances, an SCO can help. They can assist students with applying for benefits, filing forms, and resolving payment problems. SCOs also ensure that the school remains in compliance with VA and Defense Department policies.
Schools like Western Governors University are eager to assist veterans as they pursue higher education. They offer a Military Support Department and enrollment counselors to help you maximize your GI Bill benefit.
10. Financial Hardship
The current health crisis is putting a financial strain on many Americans. If you are a military-connected student with a coronavirus-related financial hardship, there is help available.
Start with your current institution. Contact your SCO as well as the financial aid office. Many schools are receiving funds from the federal government to provide emergency grants to students during the pandemic. Each school has its own guidelines and policies for the distribution of these funds and can provide information regarding how to apply for aid.
If you owe money to the VA, the VA's Debt Management Center (DMC) is encouraging veterans affected by COVID-19 who have debt and need relief to contact them by telephone at 1-800-827-0648 to request assistance. They will assist you in suspending debt collection until the end of 2020 or establish an extended repayment plan for you.
One More Thing
Education is expensive. Your GI Bill benefit may not be enough to cover all tuition costs. The Yellow Ribbon Program can help cover additional out-of-pocket expenses. Offered only to veterans and eligible dependents who receive VA education benefits, the Yellow Ribbon Program offsets costs through a partnership between the VA and the institution you attend. You can use funds from the program to pay mandatory fees and tuition. It cannot cover room and board, late fees, parking fines, etc.
Not all schools participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program, nor do all qualify. There are limits to how many students may be granted Yellow Ribbon benefits at a particular school. Check out VA's list of participating Yellow Ribbon Schools.