If you’ve finished your degree program, congratulations! The road to that college degree was long and hard, but you made it!
If you were fortunate enough to finish your degree without running out of GI Bill benefits, you might now be wondering what to do with the “leftover” benefits. If so, read on…
Option 1: Do nothing for now
Your GI Bill benefits don’t “expire” until you reach your delimiting date, which is 10 years after your ETS for MGIB benefits, or 15 years after your ETS for the Post-9/11 GI Bill. So, even if you're SO done with school right now, it’s nice to know that your “leftover” GI Bill benefits are still good for a little while longer, in case you change your mind later and decide to go back to school a few years from now. You don’t have to do anything to put them on hold or reactivate your benefits later. Just hang onto a copy of your GI Bill eligibility documentation, and take it to your future school of choice. Once they certify you for courses, your benefits will kick in again, almost automatically.
Option 2: Transfer Your Remaining Benefits
If you’re still serving, or decide to go back in, you can elect to transfer your remaining Post-9/11 entitlement to a spouse or child. You’ll have an additional 4-year service obligation if you transfer benefits, so make sure that’s what you want to do before you commit. You can also transfer if you’re serving in Guard or Reserve components, as long as you’re actively drilling. You can even transfer benefits to young kids - your delimiting date will transfer with your benefits, so your kids will be able to use the benefit until age 26 or 15 years after your (future) ETS date. For more information on transferring Post-9/11 entitlement, please visit the DOD's website or contact your Education Services Officer.
Option 3: Bachelor’s Degree
If you’ve just completed your Associate’s Degree, then your next step is to begin working toward your Bachelor’s degree. The Bachelor’s degree is usually worth a lot more in the workplace and will provide a good return on the investment. Talk to the career counselor at your current school to ask about employment prospects and additional schooling required to meet your career goals.
If you don’t have a lot of GI Bill entitlement left, then you want to budget the remaining months carefully. Fortunately, there’s usually a lot of financial aid available at the undergraduate level, such as Pell Grants, work-study, student loans, and scholarships. If you have enough financial aid, you might be able to reduce your GI Bill “certification load,” meaning you can elect to be certified for fewer classes than your actual course load to conserve remaining entitlement. If you can stretch it enough, you might even be able to get an extra semester out of your benefits! Talk to your VA certifying official at your school about how to budget your remaining benefits.
Option 4: Grad School, or something similar
If you finished your Bachelor’s degree, you can still use your GI Bill! Despite common misconceptions, you can definitely use your GI Bill toward a Master's or Professional degree. People often ask whether they should try for a Master's degree, or just work on a second Bachelor’s degree. The answer really depends on your career goals, but generally speaking, a Master's degree is worth a LOT more in the workplace than a second Bachelor’s degree, which really isn’t worth any more than the first one. Plus, you can usually complete a Master's degree in two years, so if you have, say, 10 months of GI Bill left, that will get you about halfway through your degree program. If you qualify for other financial assistance, you can stretch your benefits even further, possibly completing the entire program with very little out-of-pocket costs.
However, it’s important to consider the return on investment: if you don’t have enough benefits or financial assistance to cover your entire degree, then you’ll have to either pay for the rest out of your own savings, or quit. If you quit, you’ll have wasted all that time and effort with nothing to show for it. If you finish the degree out of your own savings, will it help you land a better job that pays enough money to make it worthwhile? Talk to a career counselor to find out what the employment prospects are in your field of choice, and whether or not that extra degree is worth it.
Another option is a graduate-level (also called post-baccalaureate) professional certificate, licensing, or credentialing program. Most of these programs can be completed in a year or less, and are a good option for using up remaining GI Bill entitlement, as they add extra credentials (and added value) to your Bachelor’s degree. Most Universities or University Extension offices offer graduate-level (post-baccalaureate) certificate programs, but not all of them are approved for GI Bill benefits, so be sure to ask appropriate questions.
What to do next?
If you’ve decided that you want to continue or return to school, there are a few things you have to figure out first. Do you know what you want to study? If not, that's going to be your first task. Talk with a career coach or do some research online to focus your academic and career goals.
Next, you need to decide what kind of program you are going to pursue: a Bachelor’s degree, a Master’s degree, a certificate program, or something else. Again, this goes back to your career goals. The field you want to work in will determine whether a degree or a certificate will be more valuable, and you also have to weigh the potential outcome against the time/money it will cost to complete. If you aren't able to afford to complete the program, then it will just be time wasted with nothing to show for it, so you need to think carefully about what you want to do and if it's worth the investment.
Third, once you've decided what you want to learn and what kind of program you're looking for, you can start looking for a school that offers the program you want on the schedule you want. If you are working, then you may need a school that offers evening/weekend, online, or flexible scheduling. If you are planning to go to school full time, you may have more options. Either way, you’ll need to sit down with a notebook and computer to start comparing colleges and programs. Once you've narrowed down your choices, you will want to call each of the schools on your list to speak with a graduate admissions counselor, ask questions about the program, scheduling, costs, financial aid, and application process, and also ask about services and resources for veterans.
Then, it’s just a matter of timing, planning, and paperwork. Be sure to meet all the deadlines for admissions, financial aid, scholarships, and so forth. It will be a lengthy process, so you may need to look for work in the interim. If you plan ahead and budget carefully, you can have a fairly seamless transition between your academic programs with minimal financial disruption.