February 11, 2014

Calculating Entitlement Use

Once you start claiming VA educational benefits, you start burning them up.  Sooner or later, you may get concerned about how long those benefits will last, and how to manage what remains.  The key to budgeting your benefits is understanding how the VA calculates “entitlement use.”

All VA beneficiaries are awarded a set number of months of benefit entitlement, usually 36 months for most forms of the GI Bill, or 45 months for the Chapter 35 Survivors and Dependents’ educational assistance program.  VA Vocational Rehabilitation is a completely different type of program and the initial entitlement might vary, but the concept of “entitlement use” is the same.
It is important to realize that your entitlement is not based on calendar months, but rather payment months.  Thirty-six months of benefits is not the same as three years, because the 36 months do not have to be consecutive, and you don’t get paid for the breaks between terms or time that you take off.

That’s really important, so let me say it again: your entitlement is not based on calendar months.
Think of it like money in a bank.  If you go to school and claim your benefits, the VA will pay you out of that entitlement “account” until you stop attending or use it all up.  When you are on break between terms, or if you stop going to school for a while, the VA stops paying you, and you aren’t using up any of your entitlement.  Your remaining entitlement will just sit there until you are ready to start using it again, or until it expires (your “delimiting date”).

Once you start claiming VA educational benefits, you start burning them up.  Sooner or later, you may get concerned about how long those benefits will last, and how to manage what remains.  The key to budgeting your benefits is understanding how the VA calculates “entitlement use.”While you are in school and claiming benefits, you will use up one month of entitlement for every month that classes are in session for your term (usually calculated from the first class day of the session until the last day of final exams), as long as you are enrolled (and certified) as a full-time student for that term.  So far, so good.
What gets more complicated is figuring out how the VA pro-rates your entitlement use for partial months, or if you are taking classes part time.
For VA purposes, a “month” equals 30 days.  It doesn’t matter how long the month actually is; the formula just changes every month to 30 days.  Even February gets 30 “VA” days.  When a term starts or ends in a month, you get paid for the actual number of days in that month that school is in session, counted as if it were a 30 day month. 
So, let’s say you are a full-time student, and your Spring term starts on January 25 and ends on April 20.  You’ll use up 6 days of entitlement for the month of January (count them with me: 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30).  Don’t forget to count the first day, and stop when you get to January 30.  Since February and March are full months in this example, the VA will charge you one month of entitlement for each.  Then, since the term ends on April 20, the VA will charge you 20 days of entitlement for the month of April.  Therefore, for this example, your total entitlement use for the Spring term will be 2 months and 26 days, even though it looks like 4 months on the calendar.

Now, what happens if you are not a full-time student?
Under the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the VA will calculate your “rate of pursuit,” or your percentage of full-time enrollment, and pro-rate your entitlement use by the same percentage.  For example, if 12 units is considered “full time” at your school, and you are enrolled in 9 units, then you are enrolled at a rate that is equivalent to 75% of full time (9 divided by 12).  The VA will round that up to 80% and charge your entitlement for 80% of a month for each month you are enrolled at 9 units.  Since we’ve already determined that a “month” equals 30 days, then 80% of a month equals 24 days.  Therefore, the VA will charge your entitlement 24 days for every month of enrollment at 9 units.
Under all of the other VA programs, the VA will pro-rate your payments and entitlement use based on tiers: full-time, ¾ time, half time, ¼ time, or less than ¼ time.  If you are enrolled at ¾ time, then you will be paid ¾ of the full monthly allowance, and your entitlement will be charged ¾ of a month, or 23 days for each full month of enrollment (entitlement use is always rounded up to the next whole day).  If you are enrolled half time, you’ll be paid half of the full-time rate, and your entitlement will be charged 15 days for each full month of enrollment.  If you are somewhere between tiers, the VA will round down, or at least that's what they tell us.
If you are a part-time student in a partial month, it’s pro-rated both ways, but the math is straightforward.  Use a pencil and a calculator so you don’t go crazy.
One more thing to keep in mind: your actual enrollment might vary from your certified enrollment, if you are taking extra classes that can’t be certified for VA benefits, or if you intentionally request to be certified for a fewer number of classes in order to conserve your remaining entitlement.  You can’t be certified for a partial class (whole classes only), but if you’re taking 4 classes and only want the VA to pay for 2 of them, you can ask your certifying official to just certify those 2 classes, and the VA will pay benefits for just those 2 classes, regardless of your actual course load.  For students who are trying to carefully budget their remaining entitlement, you can stretch it a few more weeks just by asking for part-time certification, and potentially get a whole extra term’s worth of benefits that way.  

Always remember to ask your school certifying official to help you budget your remaining entitlement and explain how this works, if you have any questions.

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