6 Things to Do Before You Go Back to School
Going back to school for another degree or designation can provide a great opportunity for forward movement in your career. While it might be an important goal of yours to go back to school, it can also be tricky to figure everything out financially. You might be thinking, “How will I pay for tuition and supplies? Will my family live on one salary? Is it even worth it?” If this sounds like you, you’re asking all the right questions! Here are six things to do before you go back to school so that you put you and your family in the best financial position possible.
1. Figure out what this education will actually provide you. It’s very important that you understand what you will gain from this additional education before you take the leap. What do you anticipate this degree or designation will do to positively impact your career? Will you be qualified for a higher paying position, receive a promotion or get to change industries to something that’s more interesting to you?
Take the time to list out the tangible and intangible benefits you will receive from this additional education. Not only will this help you decide if this next step is truly worth it, but dreaming about the future will also be great motivation to keep you moving forward when you are hard at work studying.
If you are not sure what this new degree or designation will provide, ask around. You can get valuable insight from current and past students of whatever program you are interested in. Why did they return to school for this specific type of education? What was their experience? You can talk to professionals in your current or desired industry to get their feedback, as well. Do they agree that this type of education would be beneficial to your career? Have they pursued something similar, and why? If your targeted educational institution has a veteran student liaison, ask them to connect you with other veterans in your desired field of study.
As a military member, you also have access to various career counselors and coaches who can guide you through your decision-making process and share their experience. While the decision to go back to school will be an important one that only you and your family can make, there are resources available to you for guidance and help.
Veterans Upward Bound (VUB) is designed to help veterans in the development of academic and other requisite skills necessary for acceptance and success in a postsecondary program. The primary goal of the program is to increase the rate at which veterans graduate from postsecondary institutions. Other services offered by the VUB program include:
- Education and counseling services to improve financial and economic literacy
- Instruction in reading, writing, study skills and other subjects necessary for success in education beyond high school
- Academic, financial and personal counseling
- Tutorial services
- Mentoring programs
- Information on postsecondary educational opportunities
- Assistance in completing college entrance and financial aid applications
- Assistance in preparing for college entrance exams
- Information on the full range of Federal Student financial aid programs and benefits
- Guidance and assistance in alternative education programs for secondary school dropouts that lead to receipt of a regular secondary school diploma, entry into general education development (GED) programs or postsecondary education
VUB is one of eight Federal TRIO programs (http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ope/trio) designed to provide services for individuals to progress through the academic pipeline from middle school to post baccalaureate programs. Definitely use the resources available to you to help you make the decision of whether or not to go back to school.
2. Understand and maximize your benefits. Now that you are confident and excited about the prospect of going back to school, you will want to fully understand the benefits available to you as a transitioning military member. They are plentiful and numerous!
The Post-9/11 GI Bill offers financial assistance to service members who have served at least 90 days of active duty after September 10, 2001. You can use this benefit for financial assistance to attend any approved school, university or vocational school that offers a degree program. The amount of your benefit is determined by a variety of factors, including the length of time you spent on active duty, your location, which program or school you are planning to attend, and the type of degree you are planning to pursue. Veterans who are eligible for the maximum benefits may receive funding for up to 100 percent of the tuition and fees charged by the most expensive in-state public school undergraduate program in the same state the veteran resides, as well as a housing allowance and a book stipend.
Typically, these education benefits must be used within 15 years of your final discharge date. In addition, the Post-9/11 GI Bill has a provision called the Yellow Ribbon Program. Colleges and universities that participate in this program will pay a portion above the maximum benefit allotted by the Post-9/11 GI Bill. The school may pay up to 50 percent of the costs over the maximum benefit, and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) will match its contribution for the remainder of the cost.
The Montgomery GI Bill provides up to 36 months of military education benefits to eligible veterans, which can be used for college tuition and fees, technical school, vocational school, correspondence courses, online education, apprenticeships, job training, flight training, high-tech training, licensing and certification tests, entrepreneurship training, and certain entrance examinations.
Eligibility requirements are as follows:
- You are on active duty and have served at least three years on active duty after June 30, 1985
- You elected to enroll in the Montgomery GI Bill program and have had $100 deducted from your monthly pay for a year
- As a veteran, you must meet the above two eligibility requirements, have received an Honorable Discharge and have a high school diploma or GED
The VA can help you determine if you meet the qualifications. The program currently pays a maximum of $1,321 for 36 months. Maximum benefits can be increased by as much as $5,400 total by participating in the “Buy Up” program while on active duty. Typically, Montgomery GI Bill benefits must be used within 10 years after leaving active duty.
The Veterans Assistance Program (VEAP) is available for veterans if they have elected to make contributions from their military pay to participate in the program. The government matches your contribution by two hundred percent (on a 2-1 basis). VEAP can be used for a college degree, certificate programs, technical and vocational courses, flight training, apprenticeships, on-the-job training, high-tech training, licensing and certification tests, entrepreneurship training, certain entrance examinations, and correspondence courses. The benefit is available from one to 36 months depending on how long you have contributed. Typically, VEAP benefits must be used within 10 years of your release from active duty. Whatever you don’t use inside the 10-year time frame will be automatically refunded to you.
Eligibility requirements are as follows:
- You entered service for the first time between January 1, 1977, and June 30, 1985
- You opened a contribution account before April 1, 1987
- You voluntarily contributed from $25 to $2,700
- You completed your first period of service and were discharged or released from service under conditions other than dishonorable
- The Veterans Retraining Assistance Program (VRAP) is a benefit offered to unemployed veterans that provides up to 12 months of training assistance. It’s a great option for those ineligible for other VA education benefit programs.
Eligibility requirements are as follows:
- You must be 35-60 years old
- You must be unemployed on the date of application
- You must not have received a dishonorable discharge
- You’re not in receipt of VA compensation due to unemployability
- You’re not enrolled in a federal or state job training program
Make sure to maximize the benefits available to you in order to prepare you and finance your education.
3. Create a financial plan for your education. With an understanding of which benefits you qualify for, you can apply to receive financial assistance. Once you know how much assistance you will receive, you can figure out how you will fund the remainder your education. You may decide to fund your education with a mix of financial benefits, savings and loans.
4. Put together a realistic budget. In addition to funding the education itself, you will have to figure out your day-to-day living expenses. First and foremost, that means you will want to determine how much it costs to house, feed and clothe you and your family. In order to do that, I highly recommend keeping a money journal for a few weeks where you write down everything that you spend and earn in a notebook, on your computer or in your phone. No expense is too small to write down because even the small expenses can add up. The money journal will give you not only a realistic idea of what you’re actually spending, but also the opportunity to stop or decrease spending in certain areas in order to make your new lifestyle work. Use the data from your money journal to supplement the expenses you are already aware of, such as bills and recurring charges.
With this information in mind, will you be able to live off your spouse’s salary, will you decide to work part- or full-time in addition to school, or will you finance your living expenses with savings or a loan? These are all questions you can answer only after you understand how much you spend on a weekly, monthly and annual basis. Go back to your motivation from step No. 1 to see where you can dig deep to decrease your expenses so you can make your goal work. If going back to school is going to drastically improve your career and happiness, making some changes in your spending will be more than worth it!
5. Check in and adjust whenever necessary. While your money journal and detailed plan are a great start, you aren’t done quite yet. Even the best made plans have to be adjusted for reality. If there’s no way you are able to stay within the food budget you created for yourself, adjust. See how that change affects the overall plan and then figure out a way to make it work. This may require earning more, decreasing your spending elsewhere or taking on more debt. If something is not working within your plan, don’t ignore it. Avoiding your finances will only bring about more stress and hardship. Take note as soon as you see an issue arise, and adjust as quickly as possible.
6. Finally, you will want to protect you and your family from the unexpected. An emergency or rainy day fund consisting of three to 12 months of living expenses will provide financial protection for any gaps in work or emergencies as you transition and live this new lifestyle. Make sure to keep these funds in an easy-to-access, liquid place such as a money market fund or a high-interest savings account so you can use them if needed without penalties or fees. Not only will having an emergency fund protect you in the case of the unexpected, but it will also provide you with peace of mind knowing you can provide for you and your family if something happens.
By taking these steps before you head back to school, you’ll ensure you and your family’s financial wellness and security as you make the transition. Set yourself up for success before you take this important next step in your career!
Ashley Feinstein is a certified money coach and founder of Knowing Your Worth, where she empowers her clients to redefine success on their own terms by knowing their value and fearlessly going for it. Find out more, check out her blog at KnowingYourWorth.com and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter at The Fiscal Femme.
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