U.S. Military Veterans Should Spend GI Bill Benefits with Care

U.S. servicemembers transitioning to the educational sphere should be cautious.

I usually take a walk in the mornings, and leave the house early enough both to beat at least some of the Texas heat and to listen to NPR's Morning Edition on my iPhone. This morning, I heard a story that got me walking a little faster, as I listened to its details unfold. I'd recommend it wholeheartedly to you readers.


That story comes from long-time NPR staffer Quil Lawrence, and is entitled "Trump Administration Clears For-Profit Colleges to Register Veterans Again." A link to the audio version appears at the story's head, for those who'd prefer to listen to, rather than read, its contents.


The GI Bill Is Vital to Both Schools and Servicemembers


I'm not going to recap Mr. Lawrence's story here, though I will hit on certain of its primary points. First: There are many, many educational institutions out there who will happily take GI Bill money from those who have earned those benefits, and often encourage them to go into debt to earn degrees or certificates.


Second, some of these institutions do not provide students who give them their GI Bill monies (and, in many cases, additional cash or borrowed money of their own) with positive outcomes. That is, their degrees or certificates do not enable them to find jobs, or pursue more advanced degrees and/or certificates based on what they learned in completing such programs.


In fact, the most painful moment of the story came when hearing from a female veteran who'd completed a degree program in law enforcement from a now-defunct for-profit university (ITT). After graduation she found out her degree was worthless, both in the job market and to qualify her for graduate study.


Alas, it turns out that ITT was not an accredited academic institution. My heart ached for this mother of four as she divulged a burden of substantial debt on top of the effort required to support her family, with nothing to show for years of study.


"Caveat Emptor, GI!"


U.S. servicemembers transitioning to college should be careful.

This old Latin aphorism is usually translated as, "Let the buyer beware." Simply put, it means that if you're the one spending money on something — education (including of the IT training and certification variety), in this case — then it's up to you as the buyer to make sure you get full value for your money.


Even though the GI Bill money comes from the U.S. government, it's still essential to spend that benefit carefully and cautiously. You must make sure you get as much out of it as you possibly can. Thus, I'm going to recommend some strategies.


These apply to those with access to GI Bill benefits and an inclination to put those monies to work for IT-related education, training, and possibly certification credentials. They also apply to those considering an IT-related associate's, bachelor's or master's degree (if you're going for a PhD, you shouldn't need any help in navigating the highways and byways of academia).


Point 1: Don't wait until you've separated from the service to consider and ultimately choose an education option. Understand your GI Bill benefits. Take advantage of the military's Transition Assistance Program (TAP) to start picking and choosing your options.


The TAP site recommends that active duty personnel start with this program no later than 12 months before their planned separation dates, and permits those with separation dates up to 24 months out to participate. Forewarned is definitely forearmed here; it's better to start with such things sooner, rather than later.


The TAP page also has links to the Transition Assistance programs for those serving with the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard. Use them!


Point 2: If you consider any academic institutions, make sure they're accredited. You can visit the U.S. Department of Education's Accreditation: Postsecondary Education Institutions page and use the "Look up a school" button on that page to search for a school by name in the accreditation database. If it's not accredited, do not attend such an institution. Nothing good can come from such an educational experience.


U.S. servicemembers transitioning to college should be careful.

Point 3: Run the numbers for any programs you're considering carefully. The admissions staff or training coordinators should be able to tell you how much their offerings will cost, how much the GI Bill will pay for, and what your out-of-pocket costs will be. Student loans are readily available, but that doesn't mean you should shoulder such a burden.


Shopping around among equivalent or similar programs (look at three different ones, at least, including online and on-campus programs) will quickly show you what kinds of costs to expect. Be sure to include your local community college in the programs you consider: the 1,400-plus such institutions in the United States are locally funded and are required to cover workforce preparation and entry needs.


Thus, you can count on them to give you good value for your GI Bill benefits money. They usually offer low-cost, high-quality training and courses.


Point 4: Transitioning from education to the workforce is just as interesting and challenging as transitioning from the service to civilian life. What kinds of placement services, soft skills and job interview training, and other post-graduation/completion support does the program offer? What kinds of placement rates for graduates does the provider claim to deliver?


Also ask: Are those claims credible? If such a program is legit, they'll offer to put you in touch with former participants and graduates whom you can quiz. Take advantage of those offers, and listen carefully to what such people have to tell you. You should be able to tell if what those people have experienced is what you'd like to experience yourself, when you hit the job market.


U.S. servicemembers starting college should be careful.

Point 5: Check external references, especially from those who've used GI Bill money to pay for a program (this means to find and learn from people who've participated in such programs that don't come recommended from the program provider). Other former servicepeople will be best able to tell you if the program you're considering worked out well for them, and where they ran into difficulties or stumbling blocks.


Don't consider a program that gets anything less than a mildly enthusiastic or lukewarmly positive rating from those who've preceded you, and graduated from the program. If you're considering an IT certification program of some kind, look to related online forums or communities where you'll be able to find information from (and ask questions of) people who've worked through such programs already.


Point 6: Check out the Veteran's Education Success website, a non-profit advocacy and information group run by former servicepeople to help those with access to GI Bill Benefits get the best possible return from those benefits. This group describes itself as "bipartisan policy experts, academic researchers, lawyers and advocates" who are "veterans and non-veterans dedicated to bridging the military-civilian divide to ensure career and education success for military families."


VES provides free help for veterans and military family members, including free legal services, advice, and career counseling for the GI Bill. They also offer research and reports on student outcomes and federal GI Bill oversight, and more. There's a lot to dig into here, and all of it worth at least a quick once-over. Please don't skip this valuable resource.


What's True for GI Bill Spending Also Goes for IT Certification and Training Outlays


Think carefully about how you spend your money.

Everything I covered for servicepeople in the preceding section applies to anybody thinking about spending time, money and effort on IT training and certification, though the specifics can differ. It's best to make sure that training money in particular goes to a reputable provider that gets high marks for training quality, experience, student support, and career outcomes.


When choosing certification programs, you always want to look for an established reputation and strong success rates for credential holders. Also, seek separation of training revenues from certification testing (in other words, steer clear of companies that make most of their money from filling seats in classrooms, and use certification to fill such seats).


"Caveat Emptor, certification candidate!" works the same way that "Caveat Emptor, GI!" does for mostly the same reasons, and because there's substantial overlap between these two populations. You can't spend the same money twice, so when you spend it the one time, be sure to spend it well.


Would you like more insight into the history of hacking? Check out Calvin's other articles about historical hackery:
About the Author

Ed Tittel is a 30-plus-year computer industry veteran who's worked as a software developer, technical marketer, consultant, author, and researcher. Author of many books and articles, Ed also writes on certification topics for Tech Target, ComputerWorld and Win10.Guru. Check out his website at www.edtittel.com, where he also blogs daily on Windows 10 and 11 topics.