Ten dollars for the price of one

MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, CALIF. -- If someone walked up to you right now and told you they would give you ten dollars for every one dollar in your wallet, would you take it? Of course you would! And you'd probably spend the next week telling everyone you know about how much you made off the deal.

Are you ready for a surprise? You have already been offered this deal.

All reservists, after honorable service, qualify for education benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, through the GI Bill. Depending on the amount of money contributed by the service member and the amount of time served on active duty, reservists may be eligible for benefits valued at ten dollars for every dollar contributed. Sometimes benefits are valued at even more. Unfortunately, many of the individuals eligible for GI Bill benefits never use them.

I am lucky that I realized what sort of opportunity the GI Bill provided me when I left active duty in 2006. After enrolling in classes at the local community college where I was living in Oklahoma, I completed my application online and began receiving monthly deposits into my checking account.

These deposits allowed me to finish the associate degree I started when I was on active duty, and later transfer to a university where I earned a bachelor's degree. Even after almost three years of education, I still have some money available on the Post - 9/11 GI Bill and it looks like I'm going be able to use it to get a jumpstart on my master's degree.

The Post - 9/11 GI Bill, which became available in August 2009, expands on the benefits provided by earlier programs. Tuition and fees, based on the rates of the public schools in your state, are paid directly to your school. Additionally, recipients are paid a housing allowance equal to the basic allowance for housing paid to an E-5 with dependents living in that zip code. Students also receive an annual stipend of up to $1,000.

When I was attending school, I was given a monthly allowance to pay tuition and books. If there was anything left over, that qualified as living allowance. The Post - 9/11 GI Bill is a definite step up, making it easier to go to school and support yourself.

Using GI Bill benefits, I finished my degree without any student loans, which is not the general rule for college graduates. According to FinAid, an online source of student loan and financial aid information, two-thirds of bachelor's program graduates incur some amount of debt while in school. Furthermore, the average amount of that debt is more than $23,000!

While two-thirds of my graduating class had enormous loan payments looming over their heads (in a depressed job market, no less), my education was completely paid for. It is an amazing amount of financial assistance for the low cost of twelve, $100 payments during my first year in the Air Force.

One important thing to remember is the GI Bill is only a great investment if it is used. Perhaps one bright side of today's economy is the increase in veteran enrollment figures. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper, veteran enrollment in area colleges rose from 20 to 30 percent this past fall, with rates expected to continue rising.

When I went back to school, I was nervous that my transition from an Air Force staff sergeant to a college student wouldn't be smooth. And, at first, I did feel out of place. While many of my classmates were fresh out of high school, I was almost 30 and had a wife and an infant son. As you can imagine, I didn't feel like I had much in common with them.

Their nightlife consisted of partying while mine consisted of changing diapers. They grew up during the second war in Iraq; I grew up during the first war in Iraq. Ultimately, though our experiences outside the classroom were different, we did eventually bond and form friendships based on our shared experiences in the classroom. The transition became easier, it just took time.

Like me, other veterans might find the transition from the military to the classroom initially difficult, but I want to assure them that the work invested in school will pay off in the long term. Several studies indicate lifetime career earnings increase significantly with a bachelor's degree and an education will opens doors to a range of possibilities in the future.

So...take the deal.

Go to the education office at your base for more information and find a degree program to prepare you for the career you want. It takes hard work and dedication to finish a degree, but if you're getting ten dollars for the price of one, what is there to lose?