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Managing Law School Debt with the GI Bill or Military Debt Relief Programs

Alan Peña

Managing Law School Debt with the GI Bill or Military Debt Relief Programs

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There is no debate that law school is expensive. According to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics, most law graduates graduate with an average debt of $145,000. Eligible military servicemembers can avoid this debt burden by using the GI Bill to help pay for law school. For graduates who have already incurred law school debt, the military’s various student loan repayment and other debt-relief programs are additional options to alleviate student debt.

What Is the GI Bill?

The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) administers the GI Bill, which offers veterans financial support to attend college after they have served on active duty. The current iteration—referred to as the Post-9/11 GI Bill—provides 36 months of benefits, featuring tuition and fee payments made directly to the school and a monthly tax-free housing stipend paid directly to the student. The benefit is also transferable to a servicemember’s spouse or child.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill has a complex formula for determining how much money a veteran will receive, including, but not limited to: active duty time served, school location, and if the student is full-time or part-time. Typically, benefits are maximized when the student attends a public school full-time and has served 36 months of qualified active duty time. For example, during my full-time enrollment in law school at Florida International University, the VA paid for all my tuition ($9,000–$10,000 per semester), most fees, and about $2,000 per month for the housing stipend. The VA issues a Certificate of Eligibility to all newly discharged veterans to help guide them and explain the educational benefits to which they may be entitled.

What If I Already Graduated from Law School?

Unfortunately, you cannot use the Post-9/11 GI Bill to pay for the student debt that you already incurred. However, you could use it to pay for an LLM or other graduate degree. If you have extensive student loans and are interested in pursuing military service, you can explore student loan benefits available to members of the Armed Forces. The military’s student loan repayment programs include payment deferrals or income-driven repayment plans related to active duty service, interest rate deductions, and other benefits. Each military branch administers its own student repayment program. Thus, rules and payment amounts vary from program to program. For instance, programs the Army and the Navy administer will each repay up to $65,000 per year for federal loans. Generally, you can use a repayment program concurrently with the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program and other debt-relief initiatives.

Is Military Service Right for Me?

The Post-9/11 GI Bill and the student loan repayment programs described above require a multi-year commitment to military service. The amount of time depends on the service branch. The military’s primary purpose is to defend the nation. Besides satisfying the entry requirements (e.g., physical fitness, medical/health, background checks, and other administrative requirements), servicemembers may be required to deploy to war zones, be away from home and family, and endure other hardships. During my 12 years of service, there were many days when I missed my family and found the work difficult.

Overall, serving in the military has been rewarding to me professionally, intellectually, and financially. As a part-time Army reservist, I enjoy full-time benefits (e.g., affordable health and life insurance and retirement). As a Judge Advocate for the Army, I have access to some of the best legal education available through the Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School. The school serves the Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps, the Army, members of other service branches, the Department of Defense, and other national leaders.

If you are a young attorney looking for debt relief or future education, or a law student considering another means of funding your education, the GI Bill and the military’s debt relief programs could be a good fit for your financial and professional situation.

The 2021 ABA YLD Law School Student Loan Debt Survey Report examines the issues at the heart of the student loan crisis and offers recommendations. Read the report.