September 29, 2023 9:02 pm
September 29, 2023 9:02 pm

Maximizing GI Bill Benefits: Strategies for Veterans to Save Over $100k on Education

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The number of Americans with master’s degrees today is equivalent to the number of Americans with bachelor’s degrees in 1960 due to the increase in degree offerings. If you believe that a master’s degree holds the same value as a bachelor’s degree used to, or if your desired career requires a professional degree, it’s important to carefully consider how you will finance your education.

Thinking about graduate school may seem premature if you haven’t even started your undergraduate studies yet. However, if you have access to the Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits, it’s worth planning how you will utilize the 36 months of benefits it offers. Being proactive in your planning could potentially save you more than $100k.

A quick piece of advice: Unless you’re certain that you require it, it’s best to avoid spending $1200 on the Montgomery GI Bill.

The Rising Cost of Higher Education and the Value of Community College

Over the past few decades, college tuition has increased at a faster rate than inflation. This means that the cost of education has become more expensive compared to other goods and services. These rising costs have contributed to the significant increase in student loan debt.

While undergraduate programs are already expensive, graduate programs take the cost to a whole new level. Pursuing advanced degrees in fields like medicine, business, law, and engineering can easily cost six figures in tuition fees alone. For instance, the top business schools, whether public or private, may charge around $70k per year in tuition fees. So, for a two-year business program, you can expect to pay nearly $150k in tuition, with total expenses exceeding $200k.

Considering the exorbitant expenses associated with these programs, it becomes worthwhile to pay for community college upfront. By covering the cost of two years at an affordable community college yourself, you can then utilize your benefits to cover the expenses of two years in expensive graduate programs.

The Affordability and Transfer Opportunities of Community Colleges

In several states, community colleges remain a highly affordable option compared to four-year colleges and graduate programs. In fact, in 16 states, the annual tuition for full-time students is under $4,000, with California leading the way as the most affordable state with an average in-state tuition of only $1,450. Notably, California not only offers incredibly inexpensive community colleges but also boasts some of the best undergraduate universities in the country.

I didn’t go to community college, but I was a transfer student. As a transfer student applicant, I learned there were programs to admit graduates of state community colleges to 4-year degree granting public schools in the state. Depending on the state rules, you might even be guaranteed admission to a state university if you meet the required GPA while enrolled at a community college. Such in-state transfers were quite common and many of the students I stood next to during my orientation at George Mason were transfer students from community colleges in Northern Virginia.

While I didn’t personally attend a community college, I had the experience of being a transfer student. As a transfer applicant transferring, I discovered programs designed to admit graduates from state community colleges into four-year degree-granting public schools within the state. Depending on the specific rules of each state, some even guarantee admission to state universities if certain GPA requirements are met while enrolled at a community college. In fact, such in-state transfers were quite common, and during my orientation at George Mason University, I noticed that many of the students around me were transfer students from community colleges in Northern Virginia.

Transferring Offers a Fresh Start and the Opportunity for Academic Growth

After completing orientation at George Mason University, the distinction between transfer students and those admitted as freshmen became irrelevant. It simply didn’t matter to anyone. While you might occasionally encounter individuals who hold a snobbish attitude towards community college transfers, it’s best to disregard such opinions. Rest assured, there won’t be an asterisk next to your name, and employers won’t be concerned about your educational background.

When you transfer colleges, your previous GPA becomes irrelevant as you start with a clean academic slate. When you prepare your resume and include your cumulative grade for your degree, you will only include the GPA for the credits earned at the institution where you received your degree. This presents both an opportunity and a challenge. It’s an opportunity because you don’t have to be held back by a low grade from your freshman year. However, it’s also a challenge because there is less room for error.

As a transfer student who completed 60 credits before transferring, you will only have one year’s worth of grades to showcase when applying for full-time positions. I viewed this as an incredible opportunity to focus on achieving excellent grades during that first year. I understood that performing well in the initial year could greatly contribute to long-term success. While my grades prior to transferring were not poor, they were not particularly outstanding either. The fresh start I had at George Mason University was a precious gift. I was no longer limited by the actions of my 18- or 19-year-old self. After spending a few years in the Army, I returned to school with the perspective of a 24-year-old who had gained some worldly wisdom. Although “24-year-old” and “wisdom” don’t typically go hand in hand, the difference compared to both my younger self and my peers was significant.

Even if you didn’t consider yourself a stellar student in high school compared to classmates who went directly to prestigious universities, you might be pleasantly surprised at how much you’ve improved after a few years.

Graduation and Post-Graduate Pathways: A Time for Reflection and Strategic Decision-Making

If you’ve already managed to graduate with a bachelor’s degree without incurring any debt and still have two years of GI Bill benefits remaining, then congrats! This is a remarkable accomplishment that will pave the way for your future success. You have made significant progress by completing your military service, obtaining a bachelor’s degree without any financial burden, and having two years of remaining GI Bill benefits. Take pride in this incredible achievement!

What’s next on your journey?

If you have aspirations of attending medical school or a top law program to pursue a career in big law, you are about to reap the rewards of your previous choices. These programs typically span four years for medical school and three years for law school, and by utilizing your GI Bill benefits, you may have potentially saved yourself over $100k or even more!

For those who are heading directly into the workforce, your time will come. Unless you have specific requirements such as completing credit hours for a CPA certification or pursuing one of the aforementioned professional programs, there is no rush to immediately pursue a graduate degree. This holds especially true for MBA programs. You will be a more competitive applicant if you spend a few years working before considering a master’s in business. This work experience will enable you to gain a better understanding of your preferences and dislikes in the civilian job market. It will also provide you with a clearer idea of your career goals and how a master’s degree can contribute to their achievement. Moreover, your real-world experience will enrich your learning journey and allow you to make more valuable contributions to the classroom. Even though you won’t be transitioning directly from the military, your military service will still be highly valued by business schools. Once you have gained a few years of work experience, don’t hesitate to aim for the top-ranked programs in your field.

Leveraging Financial Advantages and Exploring Homeownership Opportunities

Some veterans may have had the opportunity to build emergency savings during their time in the military. However, if this doesn’t apply to you, don’t worry. But if you find yourself in a financially advantageous position after college, consider utilizing it. With a combination of a VA loan and accumulated savings from a few years of full-time income, veterans have the potential to quickly become homeowners after graduation. This is a valuable benefit that you have already earned. If you have plans to stay in the same city for the next five years, have established emergency savings, and have a strong job offer, you might be able to purchase a house within a year of graduating.

I personally experienced this situation after completing my undergraduate studies. After working for a year and receiving a raise, I made the decision to renew my lease. I had accumulated significant savings from my deployment and managed to save enough to cover the closing costs for purchasing a home. However, I soon realized that I had made a mistake by renewing my lease without considering homeownership. In hindsight, given the low home prices in Madison, WI in 2018, I should have already been actively exploring the housing market. Although it required more effort and stress to find a subletter for the second half of the lease, the decision to enter the housing market is something I don’t regret!

The Financial Benefits of Community College for Transitioning Veterans

I understand if you may still have some reservations about the value of community college as a financial choice when leaving active duty without a college degree or enough transferable credits. For those who prefer visual representations, let’s examine the breakdown of education expenses over the 10 years following your separation from service. We’ll exclude any housing allowance payouts from this analysis. Regardless of when you choose to utilize the benefits, we can rely on four years of housing benefits.

Tuition Costs by year: Community College > Transfer to 4-Year University > Work 4 years > Enroll in Graduate Program

Year12345678910
CA(1,450)(1,450)00000000
NC(2,500)(2,500)00000000
VA(4,000)(4,000)00000000

Tuition Costs by year: 4-Year University > Work 4 years > Enroll in Graduate Program

Year12345678910
CA00000000(65,000)(65,000)
NC00000000(65,000)(65,000)
VA00000000(65,000)(65,000)

Depending on the cost of community college in your area, you could potentially save anywhere between $122k to $127k. Even in states with higher community college tuition fees approaching $10k, you are still likely to save over $100k in education expenses.

Additional Strategies to Maximizing Financial Benefits for Veterans and Reservists

Utilize Tuition Assistance Program and Part-Time College Enrollment – Use the Tuition Assistance Program while serving on active duty to enroll in part-time college classes. This option is especially beneficial if you are not currently deployed and remain stateside during your deployment. However, if you find yourself in a disadvantaged position, don’t feel obligated to pursue this avenue. The value of utilizing this program includes potential tuition savings ranging from $3k to $15k, along with the opportunity to earn two years’ worth of wages equivalent to approximately $120k.

Joining the Active Reserves or National Guard for Education Benefits – Consider joining the active reserves or national guard to take advantage of the benefits they offer, including tuition assistance, healthcare benefits, and additional income. It is important to carefully assess whether you will be working full-time in a civilian job while enrolled part-time, or if you will be working part-time. While I encourage individuals to work rather than take out loans for living expenses, your education should always remain the top priority. Education has played a crucial role in expediting my journey towards financial independence and has had a significant impact on others’ paths as well. The value of joining the reserves or national guard includes potential tuition savings ranging from $3k to $15k.

Make Informed Decisions with the GI Bill Comparison Tool – Utilize the GI Bill Comparison Tool provided by the VA if you are deciding between two or more schools that have accepted you. This tool enables you to gain better insights into your benefits, allowing you to make more informed financial decisions. By utilizing this tool, you can ensure that you make the most of your GI Bill benefits and maximize their value towards your education.

Considerations for Course Load and Graduation Timeline

Loading up on credits to extend the benefits of your GI Bill may not be the most favorable option. Typically, a full-time undergraduate schedule consists of 15 credits per semester. Adding an extra class would increase your course load to 18 credits, which is still manageable. However, the drawback is that graduating one semester earlier, from 15 to 18 credits over a 120-credit degree, would only advance your graduation date by approximately five months at best. This early graduation may not be advantageous if you are waiting to start a law program or if the company you interviewed with expects a summer start date.

While technically possible to graduate in three years by taking 21 credits per semester, this would require an immense amount of work and might not align well with the timeline for transferring from a community college. The primary goal should be setting yourself up for future success, so it’s not worth jeopardizing your future prospects for the sake of potentially having an extra semester of GI Bill benefits.

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