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Eric Fretz retired from the Navy in 2009 after 20 years of service. Then, he says it “kind of became my thing” to help younger veterans.
Fretz has a lot of experience navigating the post 9-11 GI Bill, because he’s seen it from a lot of different sides. He’s been a college student, he’s now a faculty lecturer at the University of Michigan, and he works with Warrior Scholars, an academic boot camp that helps veterans get ready for college.
He sat down with Infowire to share some wisdom, some warnings, and what he calls “pro tips” for veterans. (Avoid the VA phone number for GI Bill questions because he says it’s “a tar pit of despair” and use this internal email system instead. This is what Fretz, if he was your dad, your advisor, or your Uncle Sam, would want you to do when thinking about going back to college using the GI Bill:
Big picture: “You owe it to yourself to take this seriously.”
· The GI Bill rewards those veterans who plan the best. Generally vets have 10 years to use their benefits, but once the clock starts running on the 36 months of actual school time, “you need to proceed in an orderly fashion.”
· Fretz thinks folks who aim high will get the most value out of the GI Bill and their college experience. He says, “A lot of times vets sort of underestimate their abilities. Once you’ve decided to commit to go, try for a stretch school. I just see over and over again veterans consistently feel hesitant to shoot for the big leagues and a lot of them can definitely hack it there.”
· Community college is a great option, but it might be worth it to cover the cost yourself rather than use your GI Bill money. Fretz says a semester at community college typically costs just a few thousand dollars but that, “You can take your GI benefits and do a semester at a school that costs $30 or $40 thousand dollars. So the difference in value you can get is like $35,000.”
· Get your housing allowance. Fretz says the Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) can cover living expenses during school and is one of the “best things” about the modern GI Bill. In order to use it you need to have already separated from the military and you need to maintain full-time student status at your school. If you don’t, the BAH will lapse.
Warnings on using your “backpack full of cash”
“There are lots of folks out there who would really like to get their hands in your backpack of cash,” Fretz says. Chief among them, he warns, are for-profit colleges.
“There are some stories of folks who have gone to the classic universities who find it too challenging or don’t have a good experience and leave without the degree,” Fretz says. “But they generally don’t leave in a disaster condition,” he adds. Fretz says that he has heard plenty of “disaster” stories involving for-profit schools that involve a lot of debt and no degree for the veteran. There are many documented reports of veterans being taken advantage of by schools eager for their tuition dollars, so Fretz cautions veterans to be careful to spend their money at a college with a good and longstanding reputation.
· Fretz says veterans should watch out, “If somebody is just a little too excited to bring you to their college, if they’re really in a hurry and they want you to sign today.” He also says, “If they’re coming to your separation class, that’s a little odd.”
· Even if your chain of command is putting this in front of you, do your due diligence. He says schools might be too good to be true if they offer a lot of credit for past military experience or benefit packages that go beyond the GI Bill. Those benefits may in fact be loans.
“Pro-Tips” from a pro
The GI Bill requires you to pick a major and then take courses that support that major. That means the GI Bill doesn’t cover everything. It will not cover:
· Unnecessary electives
· Dropped or incomplete classes. A college student worried about failing a class might be tempted to drop the class rather than take a hit on their transcript. But for veterans using the GI Bill, Fretz says, “If you want to drop a class the ramifications are huge.” He continues, “You’re balancing your GPA on one hand and your funding on the other and you need to be very clear about which one is most important to you.”
The GI Bill will pay for some things veterans might not expect:
· Up to $1000 a year for tutoring if you’re struggling in class
· As many credits per semester as you can handle: Fretz says veterans should take as many credits per semester as they can without burning out. They can get done faster and save GI Bill funds for graduate school or additional training.
· Housing and expenses during the summer for those who plan well. There is a big caveat here. The BAH is only available to those veterans taking a full schedule. Fretz says it takes planning to find enough classes “that check off boxes in your degree path and are offered in the summer.”
Whatever you do, save one month of GI Bill benefits for a rainy day.
There is a program similar to the GI Bill called “Voc Rehab” that Fretz calls an, “expanded, broader program” available to any disabled veteran, even those with 10% disability.
Educationally, Fretz says Voc Rehab is broader and more flexible than the GI Bill. It will last longer and cover more types of training towards any career a disabled veteran wants to pursue. This training could include flight school, a Ph.D, or expensive equipment needed for a particular career.
The catch is that the Voc Rehab program does not have a living allowance like the BAH available with the GI Bill. However, if veterans that have a disability, or may have one in the future, save just one month of GI Bill benefits, the BAH will transfer into the Voc Rehab program. Those BAH funds will then last for as long as the veteran is in the Voc Rehab program.