Yellow Ribbon Program
Understanding the Full Potential of Post-9/11 GI Bill Benefits
By Eric Patterson
When I retired from the Army earlier this year, I knew that I was eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill and I had some understanding that it was a very good package of educational benefits. A few months into my terminal leave, I was doing research to prepare for a new job administering a campus veterans program. I quickly realized that neither the Army nor the Retirement Services Office had helped me to fully appreciate my Chapter 33 benefits. Since then, my personal surveys of every prospective student veteran I’ve met, ranging from privates through a major general, have confirmed my anecdotal observation; a very small percentage of those leaving the service truly understand their VA education benefits, most importantly their Yellow Ribbon benefits for those that are eligible.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill is advertised as the “largest investment in veterans’ education since World War II, covering the full cost of an undergraduate education at nearly any public university or college and many private schools for our nation's newest generation of veterans.” That statement, while true, does not fully explain what every would-be student veteran should know before choosing a college or university.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill, by itself, essentially pays full tuition and fees at almost any public school in the United States. For the 2011-2012 academic year, this amounts to $17,500 toward annual tuition and fees. Some new veterans undoubtedly make a school choice with an eye toward this figure, mistakenly thinking that this is an upper limit to their benefits. What too many don’t realize is that if they are eligible for 100 percent of the Post-9/11 GI Bill (36 months or more of honorable active-duty service, or medically discharged due to a service-related disability), then they are also eligible for VA’s Yellow Ribbon program.
So, what exactly is Yellow Ribbon and what does it do? In a nutshell, Yellow Ribbon is a voluntary cost-sharing agreement directly between VA and any given institution of higher learning. Under this agreement, VA and each school agree to contribute matching funds above and beyond the $17,500 maximum of the GI Bill, up to and including 50/50 cost-sharing of full tuition and fees. At the right school, your GI Bill benefits, initially worth $17,500 per year, could be extended to earn you an education which costs as much as $30,000, or even $40,000, or more, per year. Over a typical four-year college career, this could make your Chapter 33 benefits worth well over $100,000. Simply put, VA’s Yellow Ribbon program places private school tuition and out-of-state public school tuition fully within reach at a participating Yellow Ribbon institution.
What should a prospective Yellow Ribbon student veteran look for when comparing Yellow Ribbon schools? In addition to the usual criteria such as degrees offered, class sizes, type of campus, graduation rates, etc., you should most definitely understand to what degree any particular school has committed to Yellow Ribbon. For example, a full Yellow Ribbon partner has typically agreed to full cost sharing and no limitation on the number of Yellow Ribbon student veterans. This is an ideal situation where a Yellow Ribbon student veteran is guaranteed to have no tuition costs. However, a school could opt into Yellow Ribbon for an amount less than full 50/50 sharing, and they could also place a limit on how many Yellow Ribbon students they will enroll at any given time. In these cases, a wise student veteran would know what the Yellow Ribbon partner school has signed up for and, thus, what they are eligible for at that campus.
In summary, as a veteran you put your life on the line for your country, and under VA’s Yellow Ribbon program you’ve earned the right to a high-quality education without being constrained by concerns about high tuition. You owe it to yourself to check your Yellow Ribbon school options before ruling out any colleges or universities based on cost. You can find the list of current Yellow Ribbon schools at the VA website at http://www.gibill.va.gov/gi_bill_info.
Eric Patterson, Lieutenant Colonel (Retired), U.S. Army Special Forces, is Director of Veterans Affairs at John Carroll University.
District of Columbia