MENOMONIE, Wis. (WEAU) -- As the U.S. military downsizes, more veterans are returning home and back to school to earn a degree. Now a local university and the Department of Veterans Affairs is widening its aid to veterans wanting to earn their degree.
Starting in August, non-resident veterans will have access to tuition funding through the Yellow Ribbon program in addition to the Post 9/11 GI Bill at the University of Wisconsin-Stout.
“We took a look at it after talking about how we can make our campus more veteran friendly and how we can expand services and support to veterans and so this came as part of that discussion,” said military education benefits coordinator at UW-Stout John Bensend.
The Post 9/11 GI Bill pays tuition and fees for residents. Bensend said the Yellow Ribbon Program pays the non-resident tuition portion and other fees at the university, depending on the fee structure.
“The number in the service branches is reducing their strength. They're reducing the number of soldiers that they have, soldiers or airmen or marines that they have on duty. And so that pushes a lot more service members into back into the civilian world and a lot of them are looking to go to college,” said Bensend.
Micheal Kurschner was in the National Guard. He joined the military after the 9/11 attacks and got out in 2011.
“I felt like I was obligated at that point. I wasn't in school anymore, wasn't really sure what I was going to do with my life,” said Kurschner. “I had 5 1/2 years of active duty time during that time. I did one tour in Iraq, a southwest border mission.”
After he came back home, he wanted to go back to school. Kurschner said he earned an undergraduate degree in Vocational Rehabilitation at UW-Stout. Now, at age 33, he’s working towards a graduate degree.
“I decided I wanted to go into mental health counseling and now I’m a grad student in the mental health counseling program, hoping to council veterans,” he said.
But education comes at a price. Thankfully for Kurschner, he's eligible for the Post 9/11 GI bill.
“We get to go to school for virtually free,” he said. When asked about the Yellow Ribbon Program, he said it’s something non-residents should take advantage of. “With all the different options that Stout has and the program they have, there are lots of programs that veterans could get into and do very well in.”
Bensend said there are only ten spots available for the Yellow Ribbon Program. One has already been filled.
“The program specifically helps veterans who may be coming in from out-of-state or from a Midwest Exchange Program so it'll help them cover the cost of tuition dollars because it can be significantly higher than resident students pay,” said Bensend.
According to a news release from UW-Stout, the program could save eligible transitioning veterans choosing to complete a degree program under the Post 9/11 GI Bill more than $7,000 a semester.
Bensend said the number of veterans at UW-Stout has grown significantly over the last decade. Last school year, 365 veterans were enrolled.
“We have a lot of degree programs that are centered on what veterans do in the military, a lot of hands-on and goal oriented degrees. So I think it's a good transition for veterans leaving the military service and are looking to get a new career,” said Bensend.
Veterans who want to apply for the yellow ribbon program need to be eligible under the Post 9/11 GI Bill and be non-resident. In Western Wisconsin, the program is also available at UW-Eau Claire, UW-River Falls and UW-La Crosse, as well as Globe University in Eau Claire and La Crosse.