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“The Yellow Ribbon Program?” you ask. What does that have to do with education benefits? Isn’t that the symbol we see on cars and websites showing support for troops currently serving overseas on active duty?

Without question, showing support for our troops is important and commendable. But, that said, the Yellow Ribbon Program we’re referring to here, and the one

you’ve most likely seen recently in college advertisements and on the websites of some of the universities that you are currently attending or those you may be thinking about attending, is part of the Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits that you just might be eligible for.

So what is the Yellow Ribbon Program all about?

The Yellow Ribbon Program is designed to provide opportunities for veterans and their dependents to attend programs and institutions whose tuition and fees exceed standard, payable GI Bill rates. To make this all possible, a wide range of schools have agreed to work with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to match contributions to pay the difference, or portions thereof, between eligible veterans’ actual costs for tuition and fees and the amount payable under the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

What are the maximum tuition and fee amounts payable under the Post-9/11 GI Bill?

The program allows institutions of higher learning in the U.S. to enter into an agreement with the VA to partially or fully fund tuition and fee expenses that exceed ceilings established by the new GI Bill. Just remember though, Yellow Ribbon could pay up to 100 percent of public in-state tuition, but, at best, would only cover up to $17,500 per year at private universities and colleges.

Are you eligible?

First, if you’re on active duty or the spouse of someone on active duty, you don’t qualify for the Yellow Ribbon Program. You have to be a qualified veteran or a spouse or family member who qualifies for the entitlement transferability criteria of the Post-9/11 GI Bill to be eligible.

Second, “qualified” means you have served on active duty for at least 36 months, served for at least 30 continuous days after Sept. 10, 2001, been honorably discharged, or are a spouse of a member who qualifies and has transferred his or her benefits under guidelines established by the VA.

How do you find out if your school is part of the program?

The VA has established a website—gibill.va.gov/

gi_bill_info/ch33/yrp/yrp_list_2012.htm—to check the list of participating Yellow Ribbon schools.

Remember, not all schools want to or have to participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program.

Can you take anything you want and have your whole program paid for if your school is posted there?

Not really. To learn more about the programs Yellow Ribbon covers, visit gibill.va.gov/resources/education_resources/choosing_a_school.html.

What you can actually take will depend on which programs the school has agreed to cover under Yellow Ribbon. Schools have the flexibility to limit the number of programs and students they will cover and then designate the amount of coverage for each and every one based on whether you are an undergraduate, graduate, doctoral or professional student.

You will need to apply and be accepted by the institution first; then, the school will be able to tell you whether you have been accepted into the Yellow Ribbon Program and whether your program will be covered. It’s first-come, first-served; so don’t wait once you’re admitted to a covered school and know that you want to pursue a covered program. Apply right away or you could miss the boat.

Will you still have any out-of-pocket expenses once Yellow Ribbon payments kick in?

Quite possibly. All mandatory student fees for an approved program may be covered. However, any fees that are not mandatory—room and board, most study abroad fees, and penalty fees like late registration, bounced check fees and parking fines—cannot be covered by the Yellow Ribbon Program or the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Check with the school to determine what is and is not covered.

The bottom line?

Remember, you are your own best advocate.

If you’re interested in the Yellow Ribbon Program, stay on top of it. Be sure to read up on the program, check to see which schools and programs are covered, apply for Yellow Ribbon as soon as you possibly can, stay in touch with your school’s VA/Yellow Ribbon contact, visit the Yellow Ribbon website and stay up to date on any changes. If you don’t, you may end up paying for out-of-pocket expenses.

Gary Woods, former chief of DoD Voluntary Education and former vice chancellor of Military and Veterans Programs at a private West Coast university, now heads up a consulting firm that helps colleges and universities start up, improve, and retool military and veterans’ programs.

Visit Woods & Associates at www.gawoods.com/services/.