The difference between affording law school and not for U.S. military veterans may be the breadth of “Yellow Ribbon.” That’s the GI Education Enhancement Program designed to pick up on tuition and fees where the post- 9/11 GI Bill leaves off.
“It’s a great program as long as you understand its limitations,” said Susan Hattan, a member of the governmental relations staff at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C. “For example, not every U.S. school participates in Yellow Ribbon. Those that do may limit the number of students they’ll assist. They may limit their contribution, too. And for all participating institutions, Yellow Ribbon assistance is on a first-come, first-served basis regardless of financial need.”
Universities will also specify which divisions and schools on campus can offer Yellow Ribbon financing and to how many students.
“There’s no consistency across the board, so you need to check each law school before shelling out money on applications and computing whether and how you’ll pay for your legal education,” said Reda Hicks, a lawyer in Houston, who is the 2014 Army Spouse of the Year and a founding member of the 1,100-member Military Spouse JD Network.
“Just looking at a few law schools here in Texas,” Hicks said in a telephone interview, “you’ll find that Baylor University will cover one law school student for the maximum amount allowed.” By contrast, Southern Methodist will cover 10 law students for the maximum allowed, and Texas A&M University will cover 25 law students at $10,000 each.
What this means for military personnel and veterans aspiring to law school depends first on whether they qualify for benefits under the post 9/11 GI Bill. It’s important to then certify that they haven’t used up their 36 months of education entitlement on, for example, an undergraduate degree.
“Entitlement is better thought of as a bank of time, not a pot of money, available for withdrawal,” said a Veterans Administration representative. Veterans are allotted 36 months of benefits for full-time attendance during which their education will be covered. That would translate into four years for an undergraduate degree, with an academic year being nine months long; the 36 months need not be consecutive.
Veterans have 15 years to use their Post 9-11 GI Bill benefits. So those who commit to going to law school early in their academic careers have the option of paying for their undergraduate degree out of pocket and conserving their GI Bill entitlement to help pay for their more expensive JD down the road. Such a strategy should be considered carefully, however, since the 15 years available to use the entitlement won’t wait for educational plans derailed by career twists and unexpected family commitments.
For veterans who do qualify, the post 9/11 GI Bill tuition benefit will pay 100 percent of their law school education if they attend a public institution in their home state and are thus being charged the school’s in-state tuition fee. They will also receive subsidies for housing, which varies according to where the law school is located, plus $1,000 annually for books.
Enroll in a private, out-of-state or online institution and the GI Bill’s coverage is more limited: a national maximum of $20,235.02 per academic year. Since tuition at many private law schools tops $40,000 a year, the Yellow Ribbon Program is designed to help bridge the gap. Here’s how it works:
Educational institutions voluntarily enter into an agreement with the Veterans Administration to fund as much as 50 percent of the tuition not covered by the GI Bill. The VA matches the institution’s contribution dollar-for-dollar up to the total cost of the school’s tuition and fees.
That doesn’t ensure that the full annual cost of law school is paid. For example, if a law school costs $40,000 a year in tuition, the GI Bill would pay $20,235.02. That leaves $19,765 (rounded). Now say the school is offering Yellow Ribbon funding of $5,000. The VA will match it with another $5,000. That leaves student applicants paying $9,765 per year in tuition for the law school.
And this figure doesn’t include the cost of room and board over the GI Bill subsidy, the cost of books and supplies over and above the $1,000 stipend, transportation costs and personal expenses for which law students are responsible.
“You have to do the research and the math,” which should involve calling law schools and asking not only whether they participate in Yellow Ribbon, but whether they are military- or veteran-friendly in other ways, Hattan said. As Yellow Ribbon program experts note, even schools that don’t participate may provide significant financial and support services.
Financing law school can be even trickier for military family members. “Transferring those GI Bill education benefits to a spouse or child may mean signing on for another tour of duty,” Hicks said. “The challenge is figuring out what will work best for you.”
Hicks is senior counsel in the Houston office of Panaltina, Inc., an international shipping, freight-forwarding and logistics company. Since she attended the University of California Berkeley Boalt Hall School of Law before marrying into the military, she had to pay the “old-fashioned way” – with student loans
Hers is still a cautionary tale for military people considering law school. “I’m in my 10th year of practice and still have six-figure debt,” she said.
Contact Margot Slade at (914) 396-4248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.