What is the GI Bill?

Written by: Maureen Milliken

The U.S. government recognizes that those who have been serving in the military need a way to catch up to civilians busy building careers and wealth. The GI Bill provides education benefits and support to active-duty military and veterans, as well as their families, and is the best method they have to meet education and career goals.

The GI Bill, officially the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act, was approved by Congress in 1944 to ensure members of the military returning from World War II could have access to education, housing and more. The act was dubbed the GI Bill of Rights, and by the time it came up for renewal in 1956, it had helped nearly 8 million World War II veterans go to college. By its 75th anniversary, nearly 20 million veterans and family members had gone to college or received other education benefits from the bill. Many Americans who can’t otherwise afford an education join the military so they can pay for it through the GI Bill.

GI Bill benefits, administered through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, have evolved over the decades. The modern-day GI Bill is structured around length and type of service and divided into four programs. A major change is that the GI Bill recognizes traditional college may not be the right fit, and it covers a range of education and training.

Introduction to the GI Bill

The GI Bill has four programs that offer education benefits for veterans, active-duty service members, spouses and dependents. Benefits include full or partial tuition assistance, housing, non-college programs and more. Each program has its own qualifications.

Programs cover a maximum of 36 months of education, and veterans and service members may use only one GI Bill program, but those who qualify can use a non-GI Bill VA education program, like Veterans Readiness and Employment, to gain a total of up to 48 months of education.

There are other benefits beyond the GI Bill for veterans, service members and dependents that help pay for education. The Department of Defense Tuition Assistance program pays tuition directly to schools, with amounts increasing with length of duty. Some others are the Veterans Readiness and Employment Program, National Call to Service Program, Edith Nourse Rogers STEM Scholarship and Veteran Employment Through Technology Courses.

Post-9/11 GI Bill

This program pays up to full tuition, and almost everything else related to education, for veterans who served after Sept. 10, 2001. Coverage includes:

  • School fees
  • Monthly housing allowance (including those attending classes online)
  • Books and supplies.

Unused benefits can be transferred to family members.

Yellow Ribbon Program

Those who qualify for 100% tuition coverage through the Post 9/11 GI Bill and who want to attend a private college or university, or one in another country, may get up to $26,043 a year (2022 rate) through the Yellow Ribbon Program. The program also has allowances for spouses and children who get the Fry Scholarship.

Active Duty Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB-AD)

MGIB-AD provides a monthly payment directly to the service member. Costs that aren’t covered must be paid independently. The benefit can be used up to 10 years after leaving the military.

Montgomery GI Bill Selected Reserve (MGIB-SR)

MGIB-SR provides education and training benefits, paid monthly, for active members of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard Reserve, and Army and Air National Guards. Benefits are determined by term of service obligation and more. Like MGIB-AD, benefits are paid directly to the service member, and costs that aren’t covered must be paid independently.

Survivors and Dependents Educational Assistance (DEA)

Spouses and children of service members who died, or are missing, in the line of duty, or dependents of veterans with disabilities, can get education benefits, including tuition payment and more. Like MGIB-AD, benefits are paid directly to the service member, and costs that aren’t covered must be paid independently. Children of military members who died in the line of duty are eligible for the Fry Scholarship, which covers full tuition.

What Benefits Does the GI Bill Provide?

GI Bill benefits pay for a broad range of education and training expenses, including:

  • College degree programs – up to 100% of in-state tuition at public universities and colleges, as well as graduate programs.
  • Online learning.
  • Vocational and technical training.
  • Licensing and certification.
  • Apprenticeship and on-the-job training.
  • National test fees.
  • Work-study programs.
  • Housing (through Post 9/11 GI Bill), including for online courses.
  • $500 one-time relocation fee from rural area for purpose of education.

» Learn More: What Your GI Benefits Cover

Who is Eligible for GI Bill Benefits?

Each GI Bill benefit programs has its own eligibility requirements.

Post 9/11 GI Bill Eligibility Requirements

The most-used GI Bill benefit, it’s for those who served after Sept. 10, 2001.

To be eligible, one of these must apply:

  • Served 90 days, aggregate, of active-duty service and was honorably discharged.
  • Received a Purple Heart on or after Sept. 11, 2001, and was honorably discharged after any amount of service.
  • Served for at least 30 continuous days on or after Sept. 11, 2001, and was honorably discharged with a service-connected disability.
  • Is a dependent child using benefits transferred by a qualifying veteran or service member.

For 100% reimbursement, you must have 36 months of service or at least 30 continuous days on active duty with a discharge because of a service-related disability or Purple Heart. Benefits for those who don’t qualify for 100% are prorated, depending on length of service.

Veterans whose service ended before Jan. 1, 2013, have 15 years to use their benefits. Veterans whose service ended after that date don’t have a time limit.

Montgomery GI Bill Active Duty Eligibility Requirements

The MGIB-AD has four categories of requirements. For all categories, the service member must be honorably discharged and have a high school diploma, GED or HiSET or 12 hours of college credits.

Category I

All are required:

  • Entered active duty after June 30, 1985
  • Military pay was reduced by $100 a month for the first 12 months of service
  • Served continuously for at least one of these:
  • 3 years
  • 2 years, if that was your agreement when you enlisted
  • 4 years, if you entered the Selected Reserve within a year of leaving active duty.

Category II

All are required:

  • Entered active duty before Jan. 1, 1977 (or before Jan. 2, 1978, under a delayed enlistment program).
  • Served at least one day between Oct. 19, 1984, and June 30, 1985, and stayed on active duty through June 30, 1988 (or through June 30, 1987, if entered Selected Reserve within one year of leaving active duty and served four years)
  • Had at least one day of entitlement left under the Vietnam era GI Bill (Chapter 34) as of Dec. 31, 1989.

Category III

Both are required:

  • Don’t qualify under categories I or II
  • Military pay was reduced by $1,200 before separation

As well as one of these:

  • On active duty on Sep. 30, 1990, and involuntarily separated after Feb. 2, 1991.
  • Involuntarily separated on or after Nov. 30, 1993.
  • Voluntarily separated under either the Voluntary Separation Incentive (VSI) program or the Special Separation Benefit (SSB) program.

Category IV

Both are required:

  • High school diploma, GED or HiSET or 12 hours of college credit.
  • Military pay reduced by $100 a month for 12 months or made a $1,200 lump-sum contribution.

As well as one of these:

  • On active duty on Oct. 9, 1996, had money left in a VEAP account on that date and chose MGIB before Oct. 9, 1997.
  • Entered full-time National Guard duty under Title 32, USC, between July 1, 1985, and Nov. 28, 1989, and chose MGIB between Oct. 9, 1996, and July 9, 1997.

Montgomery GI Bill Selected Reserve Eligibility Requirements

Qualifying requirements for MGIB-SR. Obligation must have started after June 30, 1985 or, for some types of training, after Sept. 30, 1990.

One of these is required:

  • Six-year service obligation in Selected Reserve.
  • Officer in Selected Reserve and agreed to serve six years in addition to initial service obligation.

All of these must also apply:

  • Complete initial active duty for training (IADT).
  • Get a high school diploma or certificate of equal value (HiSET or GED) before finishing IADT.
  • Stay in good standing while serving in an active unit.

Those discharged from reserve service because of a disability that was not caused by misconduct are eligible.

Survivors’ and Dependents Educational Assistance (DEA) Eligibility Requirements

Children of disabled veterans or those who died in the line of duty must be between 18 and 26 to be eligible. They can’t use the benefit if they themselves are on active duty or if they were dishonorably discharged.

One of these must apply to the service member:

  • Died in the line of duty after Sept. 10, 2001.
  • Missing in action.
  • Forcibly held by a foreign government or power while in the line of duty.
  • Hospitalized or getting outpatient treatment for a service-connected permanent and total disability, and likely to be discharged for that disability.

One of these is required for veterans:

  • Is permanently and totally disabled because of a service-connected disability.
  • Died on active duty or as a result of a service-connected disability.

Transferring GI Bill benefits

Veterans who qualify for Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits but haven’t used some or any, may qualify to transfer benefits to their spouse or children. To be eligible, the veteran must:

  • Have completed six years of service by the date the transfer is requested.
  • Agree to an additional four years of service.
  • Have enrolled the spouse or child in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System.

The U.S. Department of Defense makes the decision on GI Bill benefits transfers. The dependent applies to use benefits after they’re approved.

How to Apply for GI Bill Benefits

Before you apply for GI Bill benefits, determine what type of education you want to pursue and what school or program you want to attend. Accredited veteran service officers can help with the application process if you need it.

When you’re ready to apply, you’ll need your Social Security number, bank account direct-deposit information, education and military history, and information about the school or program you plan to attend. Then:

  1. Make sure you are eligible for GI Bill education benefits – your GI Bill Statement of Benefits can be accessed online.
  2. Determine if the school or program is VA-approved (the VA has a school comparison tool).
  3. Apply for GI Bill benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA website has an application tool. Or apply by mail or in person at a VA office.

After Applying for GI Bill Benefits

It takes the VA about 30 days to process an application and provide the Certificate of Eligibility. Once you submit your application, you can’t make changes to it.

Provide a Certificate of Eligibility to the school, which then gives the VA your enrollment information.

Do Your Homework Before Using GI Bill Benefits

The GI Bill means that you don’t have to pay for college out of your own pocket, but you still want to make sure you use the benefits in a way that will benefit you most in the future.

If you haven’t chosen a school, research your options. Figure out what kind of education you want and what your interests are. Did you hate sitting at a desk in high school? Would you rather do something hands-on? GI Bill benefits can cover the type of education that works best for you.

Some colleges are “military friendly,” with programs and resources geared for veterans.

In the past, for-profit colleges pursued veterans in order to satisfy the requirement that 10% of their tuition not come from federal loans. In March 2021, Congress changed the law to close this loophole. Theoretically, that should ease predatory practices that some for-profit schools used to lure veterans paying for school with GI Bill benefits. That said, check for online complaints and reviews before applying to any college.

About The Author

Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken has been writing about finance, banking, investment, entrepreneurship, real estate and other related topics for more than 30 years. She started as the “Business Beat” columnist for the now-defunct Haverhill (Mass.) Gazette and currently is one of the hosts of the Mainebiz business-focused podcast, “The Day that Changed Everything” in addition to her daily writing. She also is is the author of three mystery novels and two nonfiction books.


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