If you served in the military after 9/11 and have an eye on continuing your education at a college or university where tuition costs exceed your Post-9/11 GI Bill benefit, the Yellow Ribbon Program might be able to help.

The Department of Veterans Affairs program is specifically geared to veterans, or their dependents, interested in attending higher-priced private schools, graduate schools and international universities whose tuition and fees are higher than the maximum Post-9/11 GI Bill benefit. The program can also cover the higher fees charged to nonresidents at out-of-state universities.

The Yellow Ribbon Program

The Yellow Ribbon GI Educational Enhancement Program, a provision of the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008, assists veterans in paying for educational expenses that exceed the maximum Post-9/11 GI Bill payments. Those limits change from year to year because they are based on the annual average cost of U.S. undergraduate tuition. As of Aug. 1, the 2022-2023 maximum annual benefit will be capped at $26,381.

The Yellow Ribbon Program can, in certain circumstances, help veterans exceed this benefit cap to afford a more expensive undergraduate or graduate school. It can be complicated, but it’s worth investigating. The program does not require that you attend full-time.

There are two key elements: The first is that you or your dependent must be Post-9/11 GI Bill eligible; second, the school you wish to attend must participate in the program.

There may also be limitations on how many veterans can participate in the program at each school each year. Some universities, such as Cornell, have no limit to the number of undergraduates who can benefit from the program, but do have limits in their graduate schools. The early bird gets the worm. If you qualify and you’re interested, don’t procrastinate.

How it works

The universities who chose to participate with the VA in Yellow Ribbon agree to contribute up to 50% of their tuition costs that exceed the maximum Post-9/11 GI Bill benefit in a given year. How much depends on the individual school. The VA then matches that amount.

Schools calculate your benefit by adding up all of your tuition and mandatory fees. They then subtract any aid received from other sources — such as scholarships, grants, and your Post-9/11 GI Bill tuition payment. Finally, your school applies its Yellow Ribbon benefit to the total amount calculated.

For example, if you wish to attend a participating university and the tuition is $40,000 a year, the the Post-9/11 GI Bill would pay for all but $13, 619 of that. If the university agreed to waive $6,000 for Yellow Ribbon participants, and the VA matched that contribution, it would bring your yearly out-of-pocket tuition expenses to $1,619.

Each school has its own policies, and they may differ for undergraduate, graduate and doctoral programs at the same school. Differences may also apply to the type of school within a university that you wish to attend. So, the benefit for nursing school may differ from that offered to students at the engineering school. Each school is different, and you’ll need to investigate thoroughly.

Who qualifies?

First, you must qualify for the Post-9/11 GI Bill at the 100% benefit level. The educational benefit covers your full tuition and fees at school, a monthly housing allowance and up to $1,000 for books and supplies.

To qualify for the maximum amount of this assistance, and to be eligible for the yellow Ribbon Program, recipients must have:

  • Served at least 36 months on active duty and, if separated, received an honorable discharge;
  • Served for at least 30 continuous days (without a break) on or after Sept. 11, 2001, and been discharged or released from active duty for a service-connected disability;
  • Received a Purple Heart at any time after 9/11 and been honorably discharged after any amount of service.

Recipients may also qualify for the program if they are dependents taking advantage of the unused benefits transferred by an eligible veteran or if they are a Fry Scholar (eligible for the Yellow Ribbon Program on or after Aug. 1, 2018).

Caveat: Active-duty service members, and the spouses of active-duty members who are using transferred benefits, do not currently qualify for the Yellow Ribbon Program, but changes to this stipulation are expected to occur in August.

Is your university a Yellow Ribbon school?

If you believe you qualify for the program, the next step is investigating whether or not your intended university is a Yellow Ribbon school. Only institutions of higher learning ae eligible and they must choose to participate. Not all schools decide to sign up.

If your intended university participates, it’s imperative to contact the school to investigate whether it has exceeded its yearly maximum number of students, per its agreement with the department. The VA has a contract with each school limiting how many students it will cover at each school for each year. Enrollment is on a first come, first serve basis, and funds are limited.

If all that works out, your school must certify your enrollment with the VA and provide the department with your Yellow Ribbon Program information.

How to apply for the program

Take these steps to apply for the Yellow Ribbon Program:

  • First, apply for Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits. If you qualify, you’ll receive a Certificate of Eligibility (COE);
  • Submit your COE to your school’s certifying official or to the financial aid, military liaison, or other appropriate offices;
  • Ask to apply for your school’s Yellow Ribbon Program;
  • Wait for an eligibility determination and a decision on whether your school has already reached its maximum number of students for the program period;
  • Maintain contact with your school regarding acceptance into the program and how much money you’ll receive toward your tuition and fees.
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