Beyond VA Education Benefits

Too often, veterans don’t know that they can combine VA education benefits with other types of financial aid. Or, if they do know that, they don’t want to because they feel like they are “double dipping.” Here’s what I used to tell my students – 1) You offered up your life for this country, you’ve earned it. 2) You have paid and do pay taxes, so you’ve paid for it. 3) Your VA education benefits are finite. In fact, there’s a good possibility they will run out before you have completed your education. So, even if you don’t need it now, you probably will later. 4) You’ve seen the way our elected officials spend our tax dollars. If you don’t need the money, take it and put it in a trust for your child or develop a scholarship for a vet who does need it or just put it in a savings account for an emergency.  Okay, off my soapbox and on to the facts.

Federal Financial Aid – Federal financial aid consists of grants (such as PELL grant), which do not have to be paid back; loans (such as Stafford loan), which do have to be paid back; and work study, where students can earn at least minimum wage working at their school in between attending classes. You can find more information on the types of aid available and how they work at http://studentaid.ed.gov/types.

To be considered for federal financial aid, you have to complete a FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. (Please note this says FREE. If someone tries to get you to pay to complete the application, walk away.) This application will gather tax and other information that helps the federal government determine if you have a financial need for the aid. You can find more details and complete an application at http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/.

Once you complete the application, you should receive an “award” e-mail listing your basic aid eligibility. This is just the first step. You will then need to go to the financial aid office at the school you plan to attend/are attending and they will begin a “verification” process. This is basically making sure that what you told Uncle Sam on the application is true. You will likely be asked to provide documentation that proves what you stated on the application. This part of the process can be a little frustrating, as you may have to bring in multiple documents over several different visits and financial aid lines can sometimes get long – be patient. To make things easier, I recommend you start gathering your financial information together now: W-2s, proof of any VA education and/or disability payments (this can be easily printed out from your ebenefits account – www.ebenefits.va.gov), proof of any child support, alimony, food stamps, unemployment, or other similar payments you might receive or pay out, etc. Also, I recommend you go to www.irs.gov and request your “Tax Transcript.” While copies of your tax returns used to be sufficient, fraud has gotten too rampant so now you have to request this document. They only send it via snail mail and it can take up to two weeks so better to request it early so you will be prepared if you need it.

Note: If you recently left Active Duty, you likely made too much money to qualify for federal aid your first year. However, you can request that your financial aid office conduct what’s called a “professional judgment.” This is where they can take your current situation into consideration and determine if it warrants federal aid. Sometimes, even if they deny you again, the process will open doors to school-based aid (read below).

School-based Aid – Uncle Sam isn’t the only one who is willing to give money to help you finance your education. Often times schools have multiple need grants, scholarships, fellowships, and other forms of aid that can help pay for or offset the cost of tuition and fees, books, and other school related costs. Information on what types and amounts of aid are available, eligibility criteria, application procedures, and deadlines can generally be found on a school’s financial aid page or in their financial aid office. While not all scholarships will require it, many will have completing a FAFSA as a step in the application process, so it’s a good idea to fill it out, even if you don’t think you qualify for federal aid.

State-based Aid – While a school’s financial aid office will know all about the aid that school offers, it may or may not have details on aid programs offered by the state. States, however, often have at least one educational aid program for veterans and/or their dependents, such as tuition waivers for individuals who earned a Purple Heart or scholarships for the children of deceased or disabled veterans. To find out what programs your state offers, check out your state’s Department of Education website.

- Veterans’ Organization – VFW, American Legion, AMVETS, The Marine Corps League, and others offer a multitude of scholarships for veterans, their dependents, and even, in some cases, grandchildren. While some are national level scholarships, many are offered by local chapters of the organization. Your best bet for determining what is available is to contact the veterans’ organizations in your area and see what they have to offer.

- Thematic Aid – While some aid is school or state based, there are also scholarships out there for specific careerfields or areas of interest. A quick search can provide leads - just be sure to look into the scholarships to make sure they are legit. Just a few examples to show you that nothing is out of bounds: The Penny Arcade Scholarship provides $10,000 to one student “shown to have the most potential to positively impact the game industry.” The Carl A. Scott Memorial Fund provides two $500 book scholarships each academic year to “students who have demonstrated a commitment to work for equity and social justice in social work.” And the Beans for Brains Scholarship program awards scholarships to five students across the US who “know how to knit, crochet, and/or sew.”

One note of caution about looking up scholarships on the internet – if they require you to enter your contact information before you get any information about the scholarship, walk away. These types of sites will bombard you with calls and e-mail spam and generally harass you, while providing no real value. Legitimate scholarships/aid provide the details of the aid on their website without asking anything in return.

There are also two types of aid associated with the VA education programs:

VA Work Study – Veterans and dependents using VA education benefits (excluding the VRAP program), may be eligible for VA Work Study. This program allows you to work up to 25 hours a week in a VA facility or in your school’s veterans’ office while being paid by VA. The pay is minimum wage but it is tax free and can be received in addition to your VA stipend and any VA disability or pension benefits you receive. More details on the VA work study program can be found at http://www.gibill.va.gov/documents/pamphlets/work_study_program.pdf.

Yellow Ribbon – The Yellow Ribbon program is a contractual agreement between VA and individual schools to help offset the cost of any tuition and fees not covered by the Post-9/11 GI Bill. It is only available to individuals who qualify at the 100% rate (excluding Fry Scholarship recipients) and the amount it covers is determined by the individual school. Specifics on whether your school participates in the Yellow Ribbon program and, if so, how much and how may students they cover can be found on your school’s website or talking to your school’s School Certifying Official. Details on the basic Yellow Ribbon program itself can be found at: http://www.gibill.va.gov/documents/pamphlets/Yellow_Ribbon_Pamphlet.pdf and

One final note for veterans and dependents receiving a VA education benefit that pays for tuition and fees, such as Post-9/11 GI Bill or Vocational Rehabilitation: Be sure to read the fine print on any aid you apply for. If the scholarship stipulates that it must be applied to tuition and fees, this amount will be deducted from the tuition and fees paid by VA, not added to it, resulting in no net gain for you. If the aid does not specifically stipulate that, then VA will pay your tuition and fees as usual and you can keep the aid, in accordance with whatever rules that aid has.

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