(AP/Nerd Wallet) — If you’re a veteran, the GI Bill can be your ticket to a debt-free college education. That’s huge, given that nearly 70 percent of 2015 graduates who left school with a bachelor’s degree also carried student loan debt, with an average of $30,100 per borrower, according to the Institute for College Access & Success.
Under the Post-9/11 version of the GI Bill, you may be eligible for up to 36 months — not necessarily consecutive — of college or career training if you served on active duty after Sept. 10, 2001, and were discharged honorably or with a disability, or are still on active duty. Plus, you can get a monthly housing allowance and yearly book stipend for the period covered under your GI Bill. You need to serve at least 36 months on active duty to be eligible for the full suite of GI benefits, but you can get a portion if you served less active time.
Your benefits can go far if you use them strategically. Here’s how:
1. SAVE YOUR BENEFITS FOR YOUR MOST EXPENSIVE TUITION BILL
There’s no need to use your benefits immediately; they’re generally redeemable for up to 15 years after you’re released from active duty. If you’re pursuing a bachelor’s or postgraduate degree, it may be advantageous to start at a community college and apply your GI benefits later to pricier tuition, says Timothy Greer, associate professor at the College for Financial Planning.
Keep in mind, though, that while the government will cover your tuition as an in-state student completely for up to 36 months if you attend a public school, it will cover only $21,970.46 per year if you attend a private one. Don’t rule out private colleges, though: You can get extra money toward many private schools through the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Yellow Ribbon Program.
2. TAKE AT LEAST ONE CLASS PER SEMESTER IN PERSON
If you take solely online classes, you’ll typically get a smaller housing allowance than you would otherwise. Take at least one course per semester at a physical location to qualify for the biggest possible monthly housing check based on your ZIP code. The VA’s GI Bill Comparison tool can tell you the amount of housing allowance you’d get based on your school’s location, as well as what you’d get if you took solely online classes.
3. EARN AS MANY CREDITS AS YOU CAN PER SEMESTER
You’re entitled to use your GI benefits to pursue your education full-time for a specific time frame. After your benefits run out, you have to cover tuition out-of-pocket or through other types of financial aid. So it pays to take as many credits as you’re allowed and can handle per semester while your GI Bill is covering your tuition, Greer says.
Another strategy for completing your degree faster: Earn credits for courses such as business communications and public administration based on your military training and experience. You can request a military transcript though a link on the American Council on Education website. More than 2,300 colleges recognize these transcripts, according to the council, but it’s up to each institution to decide whether you receive credit.
4. BEWARE OF MISLEADING SCHOOLS
Aiming to harness GI Bill dollars for revenue, some for-profit colleges “aggressively recruit student veterans,” says Derek Fronabarger, director of policy at Student Veterans of America. For-profit schools tend to have higher tuitions and lower graduation rates compared with in-state public schools, according to Department of Education data.
Use the VA’s GI Bill comparison tool to research schools before you enroll, including their graduation rates. You can’t recoup your GI Bill benefits once you use them, even if the school closes. That was the case for many student veterans who attended a for-profit school owned by Corinthian Colleges, which closed in 2015 after the Department of Education discovered Corinthian had misrepresented its job placement rates.
5. SUBMIT THE FAFSA
On top of your GI benefits, you’ll likely be eligible for additional federal, state and privately funded financial aid. Submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA, to apply. GI benefits don’t count as income on the FAFSA. If your GI Bill completely covers your education costs, you can use any additional aid dollars for other expenses.
This article was provided to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet. Email staff writer Teddy Nykiel: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @teddynykiel.