In fiscal year 2013, more than one million students received educational assistance through the use of their GI Bill. The vast majority of them, around 750,000, used the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Known as the most comprehensive education benefit package since the original made its debut in 1944, the Post-9/11 GI Bill could be your ticket to a free – or at the very least, more affordable – education. But how familiar are you with the ins and outs of the benefit? Check out these important facts to set yourself up for success.

Time Served Determines Eligibility

The Post-9/11 GI Bill typically covers 36 months of educational assistance, but the amount of monetary assistance you’re eligible for depends on several factors including how long you served in an active duty capacity following Sept. 11, 2001.

For example, someone who served on active duty for 36 consecutive months would be eligible for 100 percent of the benefit while someone who served 12 months would be eligible for only 60 percent of the benefit. However, there are exceptions to the rule. Service members who have a disability-related discharge only need 30 or more consecutive days of service for 100 percent eligibility.

Housing Allowance

In addition to tuition and fees, this benefit also offers a housing allowance for students attending school more than half-time (active duty service members and students attending less than half-time are not eligible). The amount is based on the Basic Housing Allowance of an E5 with dependents in the zip code where the school is located, but the actual payment is paid at a percentage based on your years of service. Something else to consider is that students who opt for online only classes are eligible for the reduced housing allowance of $783.

Extra Perks

The Post-9/11 GI Bill does offer some extra perks. There’s up to $1,000 a year allotted for books and supplies, up to $100 per month for tutoring and up to $2,000 to pay for a certification, licensing exam or work study program.

Full-Time Versus Half-Time

When it comes to benefits, it pays to enroll in school full-time. Students attending public school full-time could have up to 100 percent of their tuition and fees paid directly to the school. While students attending less than half-time could see a drop in assistance including less money for books and zero money for housing. When you enroll, make sure you’re taking enough courses to get the maximum amount of educational assistance from your GI Bill benefit.

Attending Private or Foreign Schools 

Students attending private or foreign schools are eligible for up to $21,084 in tuition and fee payments. The payments are made directly to the school and students with a remaining balance will have to make up the rest using personal funds or financial aid.

Financial Aid

A common misconception is that the GI Bill can be your only means of payment when it comes to tuition and fees. The truth is that you can also apply for student loans, scholarships and Pell Grants to help supplement the cost of school.

No Break Pay

Under the Montgomery GI Bill, students were offered break pay to cover expenses when school was not in session. Under the Post-9/11 GI Bill, students must be enrolled year-round to receive an entire year’s worth of benefits. If students opt to take a break, the benefits will stop until they’re back in school. As far as charges against the benefit, students will only be charged for the time they’re in school. For example, if you attend school for 10 months out of the year, your benefit will charge you for 10 months, not 12.

The Yellow Ribbon Program

In the event your tuition and fees aren’t completely covered by the GI Bill, you might be able to apply for the Yellow Ribbon Program. The program allows universities to waive all or part of your tuition and fees that aren’t covered by your benefit. What’s more, the Department of Veterans Affairs will match the amount being waived by the university. Together, this has the potential to greatly offset any out-of-pocket costs. The program is available to veterans entitled to the maximum benefit rate or their designated transferees. Active duty service members and their spouses are not eligible for this program.

More Than A Degree

The Post-9/11 GI Bill provides educational assistance for many different programs including traditional routes like college degrees, technical programs and independent study as well as more unconventional programs like correspondence courses, flight training and apprenticeships.

Family Transfers

One popular use of the GI Bill is to transfer it to a loved one to further their education. In FY13, about 135,000 people received transferred benefits. To transfer your benefit, two requirements must be met. First, you must have served at least six years from the date of approval and second, you must be willing to serve an additional four years from the date of election. So if you plan on transferring your benefit, give yourself adequate time to do so.

Limited Time Use

You have 15 years to use your Post-9/11 GI Bill benefit once you’ve separated from the military. However, you aren’t required to use the entire benefit at once so you have the flexibility of starting and stopping school as needed within that time frame. That being said, if you were to rejoin the military for at least 90 consecutive days, the clock would restart following your next separation date.

Tax Free

Your GI Bill benefits are not considered income and are not subjected to state or federal taxes.

Kicker Eligibility 

If you were offered a College Fund or Reserve Kicker when enlisting with the military, you’re still eligible to receive it in addition to your GI Bill benefit. The extra money will be paid monthly as an increase to your housing stipend. Active duty service members are also eligible to receive a kicker.

ROTC Rules

Graduates of the ROTC program are eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill. However, time spent in ROTC does not count toward time-served requirements.

You Can Make A Trade

Those who qualify for the Montgomery GI Bill or Montgomery GI Bill Select Reserve have the option of trading those benefits for the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Also, those who were previously enrolled under the Montgomery GI Bill are eligible to receive a proportional refund of the $1,200 enrollment fee based on the number of months remaining on their benefit.

When it comes to your GI Bill benefit, it pays to know what’s available to you. In addition to knowing the facts listed above, take the time to research your particular situation and consider reaching out to the VA for guidance. Sometimes all it takes is an extra class to maximize your benefits and prevent out-of-pocket expenses.

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Jennifer Cary is a freelance writer, blogger and former government employee. You can visit her website here.