Beginning next month, members of the military who have served on active duty since the attacks on Sept. 11 might be able to take advantage of a new GI Bill that will pick up the tab for a college degree.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill can cover up to four years of tuition and fees at a public university and help with the cost of private college. It gives money for books and, in some cases, housing. As part of the military's retention effort, members on active duty can transfer their benefits to a spouse or child.
"This is the biggest educational bill probably since the original World War II GI bill signed by Franklin Roosevelt," says Ted Porter, director of academic affairs for the Maryland Higher Education Commission. That was in 1944.
To be eligible, you generally had to have been on active duty for at least 90 days - not necessarily consecutive - since Sept. 11, 2001. You may also be eligible if you served 30 consecutive days since that time but ended up honorably discharged because of an injury related to your service.
The formula for figuring your education benefit is a bit complicated. It's tied to months of service - more time, more benefit - and to the in-state undergraduate tuition at the priciest public institution in the state where you are going to school.
You'll get a partial benefit if you served at least an aggregate of 90 days on active duty. You qualify for the maximum benefit if you served 36 months or more on active duty.
Based on fees and tuition in Maryland, the maximum GI benefits for a semester here will be $5,498 for tuition and $2,380 for fees.
The money can be applied to public or private colleges, to undergraduate, graduate or doctoral degrees, or to approved programs at colleges and universities.
The cash might not be enough to cover the education tab, especially if you are attending a private school. But the GI Bill offers help in these cases, too.
Some private and public schools are voluntarily participating in the so-called Yellow Ribbon program, where they might pay all or a portion of the unmet tuition bill. In cases where the school pays only part of the shortfall, the Department of Veterans Affairs will match the school's contribution.
Stevenson University, where tuition and fees for the 2009-2010 academic year total $20,644, is participating in the Yellow Ribbon program. And one of the beneficiaries is Peter Burns, who left the Marine Corps in 2007 after four years' service. The 25-year-old has been attending a community college, but is switching to Stevenson, where he expects to graduate in 2012 with a degree in accounting.
If not for the GI Bill, he says, "I would probably end up taking out student loans." And he might not have chosen to attend the private Stevenson, which he likes because of the smaller classes.
Besides tuition and fees, the GI Bill also awards up to $1,000 a year for books and supplies. And if you're enrolled more than half-time and attending class on campus, you may be entitled to a housing allowance, Porter says.
Even if you can't use the benefits, you may under certain circumstances transfer them to a spouse or a child under age 26.
The first step, Porter says, is to apply online at www.gibill.va.gov. By doing so, you will find out if you're eligible and for how much, and receive a certificate of eligibility to submit to the school.
You can also explore the site for education programs that could be more beneficial to you. For instance, the Montgomery GI Bill will pay a monthly stipend while you attend schools not covered by the Post-9/11 GI Bill, such as a police academy, flight school or private career school, Porter says.