How to Maximize Your GI Bill Housing Allowance

Our hack shows good schools and where to live with the most money left over

By Brandon Ballenger

This map shows what we believe is the best bang for vets’ buck in every state — taking into consideration the quality of the school, the housing allowance provided from the Post 9/11 GI Bill, plus the cost of living and safety of nearby neighborhoods.

“The GI Bill is one way the U.S. government makes sure the men and women who risk their lives for our country get what they deserve,” says Debt.com chairman Howard Dvorkin. “It covers the costs of a quality education and a reasonable allowance for housing, but doesn’t tell you where the most cost-efficient place is to live — a major factor in any budget.”

“We wanted to figure out how to maximize this important military benefit for veterans across the country so we made this map to help them plan for the next important step of their lives,” Dvorkin says.

Hover your cursor over a state to see the most cost efficient recommendation, and click it for more details about the school. Check it out, then see our methodology below.

RankSchoolPotential leftover housing allowanceRankSchoolPotential leftover housing allowanceRankSchoolPotential leftover housing allowance
1Columbia University$1,99418University of Missouri Kansas City$43835University of Louisville$252
2University of Vermont$1,07919Indiana University Southeast$39736Portland State University$241
3Harvard University$97920Miami University$39037Jackson State University$229
4Yale University$97921Centenary College of Louisiana$36738University of Kansas$198
5Southern Methodist University$92422College of Charleston$35639University of Nebraska at Omaha$195
6University of Delaware$77123University of New Hampshire at Manchester$35140University of New England$185
7University of Chicago$74524University of Minnesota Twin Cities$34341Monmouth University$179
8University of Michigan$71525University of Washington$33142Northern Arizona University$170
9University of Alaska Southeast$71526Montana State University$32543University of Denver$165
10Vanderbilt University$65227University of San Francisco$30844Brigham Young University$154
11University of Hawaii at Manoa$61828Bacone College$30445University of Arkansas Little Rock$152
12Immaculata University$57829Shepherd University$29846University of Idaho$144
13Marquette University$57530Savannah College of Art and Design$28647University of Nevada Las Vegas$119
14University of Maryland$55231University of Alabama at Birmingham$28448St John’s College$32
15Minot State University$50632Drake University$28449University of South Dakota$24
16Elizabeth City State University$50233Brown University$27850University of Wyoming$21
17University of Miami$49934George Mason University$255

Methodology

What makes this map work is the fact GI Bill housing allowances are based on rent estimates for the zip code of the school you attend, not of where you decide to live — that’s a decision the military leaves squarely up to veterans.

We used the latest data behind the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ own GI Bill Comparison Tool along with rent estimates from Zillow and crime data from City-Data.com. Every school featured ranks on at least a regional list of U.S. News and World Report’s best colleges, and most rank high on the national list.

We focused mainly on maximizing the value of GI Bill benefits — not the nicest places to live. We made sure the towns mentioned have crime rates no higher than the national average, and that they’re within reasonable distance of the school — almost all are less than a 40-minute drive, and most are much less. But the idea is to show the most extreme examples to highlight the flexibility of housing allowances, recognizing that some of the leftover money can be traded back for a “neighborhood upgrade.” Urban areas tend to have a wider range of prices available.

There are a few important caveats to how the Post-9/11 GI Bill works. Our map assumes vets receive the maximum benefit payable, which generally requires 36 months of active-duty service, full-time enrollment, and in-state tuition rates. Benefits are available at a reduced rate for part-time and distance learning students.

The GI Bill may also not fully cover private schools or out-of-state tuition. However, something called the Yellow Ribbon program can help cover those extra costs, and many of the schools on our map participate. To check, click a state and look for the yellow ribbon in the upper right of the box that pops up. Only two of the private schools on the list are not currently Yellow Ribbon schools: Bacone College in Oklahoma and Brigham Young University in Utah.

One other thing to keep in mind — the housing allowance is also intended to help with utility costs. We couldn’t find a good source of data for average utility bills, so that money needs to be factored out of the amount left over we calculated.