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What is the Yellow Ribbon Program?

By Andy McCarty
April 15, 2020

Andy McCarty, director of Northeastern’s Dolce Center for the Advancement of Veterans and Servicemembers (CAVS), explains the Yellow Ribbon Program and how veterans can take advantage of the benefit.

I’ll always remember this as one of the best days at my job. I was working in Northeastern’s financial aid office where I sat near the front desk. When Mike, a new student and Army veteran, came in and asked about veteran benefits, my ears immediately perked up. I stepped in to introduce myself, explain things, and answer any questions.

When I started explaining Northeastern’s commitment to the Yellow Ribbon Program, it was clear he’d never heard of it before. Then, when I told him how it worked, his jaw dropped; he said an enormous weight had just been lifted off his shoulders. Mike had walked in expecting to have to pay a great deal of money to earn his degree. After speaking with our office, however, he learned it wouldn’t cost him a dime. Seeing that look of amazement and relief on his face was what makes this one of my fondest memories. It was the first time it happened. And luckily for me, my team, and the students we get to serve, this is now a conversation we get to have all the time.

My conversation with Mike took place 10 years ago. The Yellow Ribbon Program (YRP) was relatively new, so it wasn’t a surprise when vets weren’t familiar with it. A decade later, though, we still find that veterans either haven’t heard of it or aren’t familiar with the details. It’s no surprise that many are confused, considering all of the ways in which “yellow ribbon” gets used. The Guard and Reserves have yellow ribbon events to provide information that’s useful throughout the deployment cycle; families hang actual yellow ribbons while loved ones are serving abroad; Congress also chose Yellow Ribbon when naming a special new program created under the Post-9/11 GI Bill®.

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What is the Yellow Ribbon Program?

The Post-9/11 GI Bill is a remarkable improvement over its predecessor, the Montgomery GI Bill. As generous as it the Montgomery GI Bill is, the tuition at many colleges and universities exceeds what it will cover, which changes year-to-year. The government asserted that veterans shouldn’t have to take on significant education debt in order to attend better institutions, and Congress created the YRP.

In essence, the YRP is an optional cost-sharing partnership between a college or university and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The key is that it’s optional. Schools don’t have to participate, and plenty of them don’t. Universities can also set whatever limits they want on the partnership.

It’s important to note that not all YRP commitments are created equal. While one school may be very generous, another might be more restrictive. Veterans applying to colleges and universities should learn what the YRP commitments look like at each respective institution.

The Yellow Ribbon Program at Northeastern

Northeastern University first committed itself to the YRP in 2009 with a pledge of $2 Million to support this fund. We have continuously increased our commitment in the years since by increasing the number of veteran spots offered as well as our contribution amounts. In May of 2019, Northeastern removed all limits on the number of spots and contribution amounts. This makes Northeastern’s program one of the most generous YRP commitments of any institution in the United States.

How Does the Yellow Ribbon Program Work?

For those who aren’t clear how the Yellow Ribbon Program works, here’s an example. (Note: These tuition amounts are made up for the purposes of this explanation. Also, the GI Bill cap changes from year to year; these numbers use the 2019-2020 academic year cap.)

Suppose Joe Armyvet enrolls at Northeastern in a program that costs $60,000 per year. He turns in his paperwork, and we verify that he’s eligible for the Yellow Ribbon Program. After NU certifies his enrollment, the VA sends his GI Bill tuition payment to the school. That payment covers $24,477, but Joe still has a balance of $35,523. At another institution, Joe might have to pay that amount out of pocket. He could apply for scholarships and grants or take out loans, but ultimately, he’s responsible for figuring out how to cover his balance for this and all future years of his program.

However, in this case, Joe can take advantage of the Yellow Ribbon Program offered by Northeastern University. Since we participate at the highest percentage possible (50 percent), Northeastern splits the balance 50/50 with the VA. There is no cap on our contribution amount, so Northeastern pays $17,762. The VA then matches our contribution, and Joe has no out of pocket costs for mandatory tuition or fees.  Joe gets to concentrate solely on his academics without worrying about how to pay for school.

An additional benefit Joe enjoys as a veteran enrolled in the YRP at Northeastern’s Boston campus is a fully subsidized parking permit. Additionally, if his books exceed the $1,000 stipend he receives from the Post-9/11 GI Bill, Northeastern will reimburse him for the difference. These aren’t benefits required, but instead, something extra Northeastern wants to provide its military students. (Joe probably goes home and does a little dance of joy in his apartment when no one is looking.)

Differences in the Yellow Ribbon Program among Colleges

As mentioned, the Yellow Ribbon Program can look different at every institution. One school may only offer a handful of spots. Another may limit the funding to only 10 percent of the tuition gap. The funding cap they choose may fall short of what a student needs. Schools may also restrict their YRP commitment to certain majors. It’s critical that veterans research the YRP commitments of any school they’re considering applying to. This doesn’t need to be the only factor in deciding which institution to attend. But with the potential for free education on the table, it should certainly be given strong consideration.

If a veteran has transferred all or a portion of their Post-9/11 GI Bill entitlement to a dependent spouse or child, those family members may also be eligible for the Yellow Ribbon Program. Also, it’s important to remember that the YRP and GI Bill work in tandem. You can have GI Bill entitlement and not qualify for the YRP. However, those enrolled in the YRP MUST have Post-9/11 GI Bill entitlement remaining. As soon as your GI Bill entitlement is exhausted, you’re no longer eligible for the YRP. This is how Congress wrote the rules when it was created. (To learn more about qualification requirements and any remaining entitlement, visit the VA website for the most up-to-date information.)

Taking Advantage of your Yellow Ribbon Benefits

At the right school, the Yellow Ribbon Program can be a life-changing benefit. Northeastern is extremely proud of our history serving veterans and military members. Our commitment to the YRP is just one way in which we honor that legacy and continue doing what’s right for those who’ve worn the nation’s uniform.

For answers to your questions about the Yellow Ribbon Program or using other VA education benefits at Northeastern,  contact the Dolce Center for the Advancement of Veterans and Servicemembers (CAVS) at [email protected].

GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government website at

About Andy McCarty
Andy McCarty is an Air Force veteran (2000-2004) with two OEF/OIF deployments. He is the Founding Director of Northeastern’s Dolce Center for the Advancement of Veterans and Servicemembers and an associate instructor with FourBlock, the veteran career readiness program. Andy also serves on the executive board of the Council on Military Transition to Education.