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5 Things for Veterans to Know About Expanded GI Benefits

Farran Powell | US News & World Report

Lawmakers this month sent an expanded GI educational benefits bill, known as the "Forever GI Bill" to President Donald Trump's desk to sign.

The Forever GI Bill, which passed the U.S. Senate unanimously, is estimated to cost more than $3 billion over 10 years.

"It restores benefits to veterans who were impacted by school closures since 2015 and has special benefits for our reservists, surviving dependents and Purple Heart recipients," said Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin in a statement.

The new law will also eliminate the 15-year limit on educational benefits for new enlistees. As the bill's nickname implies, veterans will no longer have a time limit for completing their education.

Since the GI Bill's creation in 1944 during World War II, it has been updated several times to help veterans pay for college and training. The last expansion, the post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act, often called the post-9/11 GI Bill, was eight years ago.

The 2009 expansion increased veteran student enrollment at colleges, says Liang Zhang, a professor at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, who studies higher education policies. Zhang found in his recent study that the last expansion increased enrollment rates by 3 percentage points from comparing the 2005-2008 period with 2010-2015.

According to the 2017 annual report by the Department of Veterans Affairs, 79 percent of veterans who enrolled in a higher education program in 2016 were beneficiaries from the post-9/11 program.

"If the last GI Bill had a significant enrollment, then we could probably expect an increase in general enrollment by the current expansions," Zhang says.

Veteran advocacy groups say Trump is expected to sign the Forever GI Bill. Here are five big changes once the bill becomes law.

1. Veterans whose colleges shut down in the middle of the semester will have their benefits restored. The closure of several colleges and universities in 2015 and 2016, many of which were for-profit, adversely affected many student veterans, experts say.

"So those who were attending ITT when it closed will have a full restoration of the benefits and be able to use the benefit at a different school," says James Schmeling, executive vice president of District of Columbia-based Student Veterans of America, a nonprofit advocacy group.

But this benefit is not just for those who attended ITT Technical Institute, it also applies to service members who attended a postsecondary institution that closed after January 2015. According to the Congressional Budget Office, $50 million will go toward restoring benefits to thousands of veterans next year.

2. New service members can use the benefit throughout their lifetimes. The caveat is it's only for those who were discharged on or after Jan. 1, 2013.

For those who meet this cutoff, the expansion will eliminate the 15-year time limit to use these benefits.

Experts say this will enable more veterans to complete college or higher education courses for a career, which are necessary for wage gains.

3. The expanded benefits emphasize STEM programs. The expansion encourages veterans to enroll in science, technology, engineering or math degrees through financial incentives.

Schmeling says student veterans often voice that they had to choose other fields since some STEM bachelor's degrees can take up to five years to complete.

"They were choosing other degrees that they could complete during the availability of their GI benefit. So extending them allows them to take STEM more seriously than they might have before," he says.

Veterans interested in these fields will be eligible to receive either nine months more of educational benefits or up to $30,000 in a lump sum, the maximum amount.

While many of the bill's provisions go into effect next year, this provision won't be available until August 2019.

4. All Purple Heart recipients since Sept. 11, 2001 are now eligible for educational benefits. Previously, many reservists who were injured during active service didn’t meet the full requirements for the GI Bill.

With this expansion, 1,500 Purple Heart recipients will become eligible for GI benefits, veteran advocates say.

5. GI Bill entitlements can be transferred to another dependent or spouse. Veterans will be able to transfer the remainder of their entitlement to another dependent in cases where the dependent who initially received the transferred benefits dies.

A dependent will also be able to transfer the remaining benefits to another dependent after the death of the veteran, too.

"It's not really a large expansion, but it's a humanitarian need for those who need to transfer," Schmeling says.