A Congressional Research Service report estimated more than 600,000 service members will use educational benefits in 2022, totaling about $10 billion for tuition and fees, housing, books and other assistance.
That allocation means individual student service members can tap into sizable education benefits.
For example, if you served on active duty for 36 months after September 10, 2001, you may receive enough financial assistance to cover all your in-state tuition and fees at a public college or university.
If your education costs exceed what tuition assistance or the GI Bill cover, you may be able to get more financial help through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) top-up program.
In a nutshell, the VA top-up program will pay the difference between your total educational costs and tuition assistance or GI Bill benefits for up to 36 months. But, there are some differences between how tuition assistance, the G.I. Bill and the VA’s top-up benefit work together.
In some cases, service members may not receive full educational coverage. Combined DOD and top-up program payments can never be more than the total cost of your courses – and the extra coverage comes at a price.
Using Top-Up Reduces Your GI Bill Benefits
To qualify for the top-up program, you must already be using Montgomery GI Bill Active Duty (MGIB-AD) or Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits. Which GI Bill you’re using will determine how the program affects your benefits.
- VA Top-Up Program with the Montgomery GI Bill
When you use the Montgomery GI Bill, the top-up program will pay the difference in course costs and the amount covered by the Montgomery GI Bill.
Your overall GI Bill educational benefit will decrease by one month for each top-up payment you receive.
- VA Top-Up Program with the Post 9-11 GI Bill
If you use the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the top-up program will pay the difference between the GI Bill payment and the approved top-up maximum amount for tuition and fees.
The top-up program makes one lump-sum payment to the service member applying for benefits, not the school.
Full-time school or training rates reduce your GI Bill benefit by a full month, while half-time rates reduce your GI Bill benefit by a half-month for each month you’re enrolled.
How Does the VA Calculate Post-9/11 GI Bill Benefits?
The Post-9/11 GI Bill will cover the total cost of your tuition and fees, but only up to certain limits.
For example, Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits cover the total cost of in-state tuition at public colleges, but only up to $26,043 per year at a private college.
If you use both the GI Bill and the top-up program for the same courses, you may be limiting the length of your educational benefit allowance.
Often, it’s best to use them separately to maximize your benefit funding.
To fully understand how the top-up program affects your G.I. Bill benefits, schedule an appointment with your education officer, or use the GI Bill Comparison Tool to explore your options.
How to Apply for the Top-Up Program
Your application process may vary slightly, but here’s how to apply in most cases.
- If you haven’t done so already, request tuition assistance from your branch of service.
- Make sure your school and program are approved to receive VA benefits.
- Formally apply for VA benefits by completing V.A. Form 22-1990.
- Authorized DoD officials must sign tuition approval forms. Some service branches require the commanding officer’s signature and others require the education service officer’s signature.
- Send your tuition assistance approval form and the application for VA education benefits to the VA regional processing office that handles your claim. You’ll find the address on A Form 22-1990.
- Contact your school certifying official (SCO). An SCO is an on-campus representative who will assist you by submitting enrollment certification to the Department of Veterans Affairs for VA education benefits.
Qualifying for the VA’s Top-Up Tuition Assitance
You might not be eligible for VA benefits like the top-up program if you received a bad conduct, other than honorable or dishonorable discharge.
If you want to try to qualify for benefits like the top-up program, you can seek a discharge upgrade to restore your benefits.