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Veterans Must Understand Their Differences to Make the Most of GI Bill

Gil Williams reviews the college requirements for a Navy Sailor.

This fall, almost 20 million students will head back to school; veterans comprise a small, but increasing number of this population with almost 50% of eligible veterans taking advantage of the GI Bill.  In many ways, veterans are just like other students: hard working, goal-oriented, optimistic and fun-loving.  However, the research conducted by Student Veterans of America highlights that veterans are also very unique. They are older (80% are 25 or older), possess more real world experience, and are more likely to have families (60% report being or have been married) and dependents (almost 50% report being parents).  Understanding these key differences and how they impact your college experience is key to making the most of your benefits.  These six principles will help ensure you are making the most of your time, your hard-earned money and the opportunity to pursue higher education after your military service.

Your education isn't free:  As a veteran, you qualify for a GI Bill benefit, which is the equivalent of four years of in-state tuition at a public university plus a modest living and book stipend. It's easy to fall for the illusion that this means your education is free and, therefore, you don't need to think as strategically about your choices as if you were paying for school directly. On the contrary, you earned this benefit through your service. Today, it's likely the biggest asset you own and worth well over $50,000. Your benefit can be used over a fifteen-year period for a wide range of education and career support to include vocational and technical training, apprenticeships and licensing to name a few. In certain circumstances, your benefit can even be passed on to family members. So don't think of your GI Bill benefits as a free ride – they are a significant financial asset that must be invested wisely.

Invest in the business of “You:”  When making decisions about your education and career, it's helpful to view yourself as a business owner-- you are in the business of selling your labor, meaning your skills, time and energy. As with any business owner, your goal is not to maximize your income in any one year, but rather to maximize income over your entire career.  Make education decisions that will increase your compensation, employability and longevity to maximize your lifetime career earnings, not just your starting salary.  Hold yourself to this high standard as you evaluate the types of education investments you make. Take the long view!

Start slow, but finish fast:  Because your eligibility for the GI Bill lasts 15 years, there is no rush in getting back to school until you have a very clear picture of your educational objectives.  Take the time needed to explore and evaluate your long-term career goals in order to make a good decision about your major.  However, once you start, make every effort to minimize the time it takes to finish.  Because veterans are older and often have families, the personal and financial opportunity cost of being in school is far greater. Your tuition may be covered, but the time you spend in school is time you could be spending in the workforce, contributing to family income and growing your career.  And in general, the longer it takes to complete schooling, the higher your risk of failure and the more debt you will have at graduation.  It's OK to start slow, but remember to finish fast.

Not all degrees are created equal:  In today's competitive job market, getting a college education is no longer enough to ensure financial security.  There is significant disparity in starting salaries between majors in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) and business compared to liberal arts majors.  For example, in a 2016 Payscale survey, the top 10 paying bachelor's degrees were all STEM majors.  Pursue a major you are passionate about, but understand the financial implications of your choice. 

Be an informed consumer:  Incoming students often select their college based on reputation, financial aid, campus feel and social scene.  As a veteran, your selection criteria should be different given the significant experience, targeted professional goals, possible family and GI benefits you bring to the table.  Given the significant investment you are making, assess the likely payback by considering the following factors:  1) what is the graduation rate for your desired major and for veterans at your institution of choice; 2) understand the policy for credit acceptance related previous coursework, as this can save you significant time and money; 3) evaluate the job placement success for your field.  While getting an education is usually an excellent investment, making bad educational choices that don't result in successful completion can be financially punitive.  Minimize this risk by doing your homework upfront. 

Education decisions must fit the big picture:  Because veterans enter college later in life, they must consider college and career choices in the context of their bigger picture.  Considerations include:  marital and family needs, geographical constraints, existing skills and experiences as well as network.  Veterans should not view college as a chance to start over, but rather a chance to build and complement their existing skills, experiences, brand and network.  By evaluating your educational choices holistically, you will maximize your chances of success. 

Pursuing a college education is likely the single biggest investment you will make in your lifetime and also has the potential to be the single most impactful decision in your journey to financial security.  You have earned your GI benefits through hard work, sacrifice and service to the nation. You owe it to yourself and your family to make the most of this benefit.

Douglas P. McCormick is the author of Family Inc.: Using Business Principles to Maximize Your Family's Wealth (Wiley).  www.familyinc.com. Currently Managing Partner and co-founder of HCI Equity, McCormick is a former Infantry officer, Harvard graduate student turned professional investor.  He is active in promoting economic empowerment among veterans through financial literacy, education, career management and entrepreneurship and serves on the board of Team Red White and Blue.

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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 www.benefits.va.gov/gibill
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