Here are a few points to keep in mind to help you get the most from your hard-earned education benefits.

When Yvonne Millan joined the U.S. Army in 2000, she had three goals in mind.

First, to serve her country. Second, to earn a college education. And third, to prepare for the civilian career she would pursue after she completed her military service.

Despite the sacrifice it required, Yvonne proudly achieved her first goal. Stationed at Fort Lee, Virginia, she served as a mortuary affairs specialist. She deployed to Washington D.C. in September 2001 to recover remains from the Pentagon after the 9/11 attack. And in 2003, as a logistical supply specialist, she deployed to Kuwait in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

To achieve her second goal, Yvonne enrolled at Saint Leo's Fort Lee Education Center while she was stationed in Virginia. When she moved to California, she wanted to remain with Saint Leo so she continued her education as an online student and recently completed a bachelor's degree in business.

Currently a stay-at-home-mother of two small children, Yvonne is now focused on her third goal and is looking to start a civilian career in business.

Using military education benefits

"I would definitely encourage other servicemembers who may think that college isn't for them to give it a try," says Yvonne.

When she was a full-time soldier and Saint Leo student, Yvonne tapped her military Tuition Assistance benefits to help pay for college. After she separated from the Army, she started using Post-9/11 GI Bill® (Chapter 33) benefits, which covered 90 percent of her tuition and provided her with money for textbooks and a monthly housing allowance.

If you, too, are a servicemember of military veteran thinking about earning a college degree, or finishing one you already started, here are some tips may help you maximize your hard-earned education benefits.


1.  Select a regionally accredited university.

Regional accreditation is considered the gold standard of accreditation. Schools offering online degree programs that are regionally accredited are subject to the same review process as brick-and-mortar schools and must meet the same standards. While accreditation does not guarantee employment, if you plan to use your degree to obtain a civilian job once you transition out of the military, attending a regionally accredited school means you will not have to worry about your degree being accepted by employers. Just be sure to use the VA school locator to verify that the school you are considering is approved for VA benefits.


2.  Know your educational goal.

Why do you want to earn a college degree, and how do you plan to apply your education? What knowledge and skills do you need to move your career in the direction you want? It's important to have a goal so that you can pick the field of study that will best help you reach it. While there is some room for flexibility, you don't want to be dropping courses and changing majors in midstream and chance maxing out your benefits before you finish your degree. If you have a goal, then you can map out a plan to reach it.

3.  Earn credit for prior learning.

VA education benefits are generally capped at 36 months, therefore completing your degree in a minimal amount of time can help ensure your benefits do not run out before you earn your diploma. Accelerate the process by earning credit for military courses and training you have already completed and by testing out of courses. Your school's enrollment counselor can explain how to request validation for prior learning credits. You can also use your military benefits to take College Level Examination Program exams. In addition, credit-by-examination subject tests are available free to all qualifying U.S. armed forces personnel.


4.  Take courses while still on active duty.

Start working toward your degree while you are still serving using Tuition Assistance (TA) to take courses. While each branch of the military has its own criteria for eligibility and different application processes, TA can cover 100 percent of undergraduate courses, including online classes. The fewer classes you need to take to complete your degree after you separate from the military the less reliance you will have on GI Bill® benefits.

5.  Don't wait to start.

In addition to providing up to 36 months of education benefits for approved programs, the Post-9/11 GI Bill® is generally good for 15 years following your release from active duty, and the MGIB for 10 years. That might seem like a long time, but keep in mind that the sooner you earn a college degree the sooner you can begin to reap the benefits. U.S. Department of Education statistics show that higher education attainment is associated with higher median earnings and lower unemployment. In addition, two-thirds of all jobs being created require some form of post-secondary education or training.

6.  Determine the right benefit for you.

If you are eligible for more than one VA education benefit, such as the Post-9/11 GI Bill® and the Montgomery GI Bill®, you must choose which benefit to receive. Take the time to determine your best benefit because the decision can be irrevocable.

Consult the detailed information on the VA website. The VA provides a concise chart comparing the different education benefit programs. Your university's veterans services administrator or VA school certifying official (SCO) are also excellent resources to answer your questions. While you need to consider which benefit pays more, where you will be living, and whether you will be receiving any other financial aid, your most important consideration is your educational goal

7.  Keep your grades up.

To continue to receive GI Bill® benefits and remain in good standing, you must maintain a minimum grade-point average of 2.0. It is possible to repeat a class if you do not receive a passing grade, but keep in mind that academic progress is monitored and a list of veteran students placed on academic probation must be sent to the VA each term. Educational benefits can be discontinued if a student ceases to make satisfactory progress toward completing a degree.

Additional resources

Your school's SCOs are an excellent resource for answering any questions you might have about your military education benefits. They can help ensure you use these valuable and well-deserved benefits to your best advantage.

In addition, if you're considering an online degree program, Saint Leo University has developed the e-book "Enlistment to Enrollment: Earning Your College Degree Online." The book covers a variety of topics including paying for school, maximizing your benefits and finding scholarships and grants.

Click here to download the e-book, "Enlistment to Enrollment: Earning Your College Degree Online."


Image credit: Billion Photos on Shutterstock

*GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government Web site at​gibill.