This month, my family will reach a milestone: our last first day of school with two kids at home. Although it’s hard for me to believe, our oldest will be a senior in high school and this time next year we will (hopefully) be preparing to send him off to college. Like rising seniors across the country, he is already busy completing the Common Application, working on his essay, and researching colleges. Meanwhile, his dad and I are trying to figure out how to pay for it.
It’s not that we haven’t saved for our kids’ college education – we have. In fact, we’ve been contributing to our state 529 plan for years and have accumulated what we thought was a good-sized nest egg for each of our two kids. It’s just that college costs are going up faster than we can save. According to the College Board, a “moderate” budget at a private college averages $47,831 annually. Multiply that by four years and two kids and you arrive at a figure that exceeds some people’s mortgages.
Luckily for us and other families, there are options to make college more affordable. One is to attend school in a state where we qualify for in-state tuition. Because my husband is still active duty, our kids will be eligible for in-state tuition in the state where he is stationed, as well as the state where we maintain our permanent residence. In-state tuition at public colleges is often less than half of what is charged at private schools, making it a great option for many families.
Many military families are also able to use the Post-9/11 GI Bill to help pay for their kids’ college tuition. The GI Bill provides up to 36 months’ tuition at the in-state rate, as well as a stipend to cover housing and books. It’s an incredibly valuable benefit that has the added bonus of being transferable to a spouse and/or kids. There are strict rules covering transferability, so it’s important to read the fine print and make sure you meet all the requirements. Most significantly, the service member must have been in the military for at least 6 years before transferring the benefit and must agree to serve an additional 4 years. Service members can transfer all or part of the benefit and can divide the benefit among a spouse and children. Just remember the service member cannot transfer the benefit after leaving the military and transferring the benefit does incur an additional service commitment.
If you are using the GI Bill to pay for your child’s education, it’s important to know it covers tuition at the in-state rate. That’s great if your child is attending a state school in a state where you qualify for in-state tuition. If not, you may be in for some sticker shock. My son, at one point, considered applying to a school in North Carolina. However, the GI Bill will only cover the in-state tuition rate, leaving us to cover the difference between the much higher out-of-state rate – in our case, that would have amounted to more than $25,000!
If your child’s heart is set on an out-of-state or private school and you are using the Post-9/11 GI Bill, you should know about the Yellow Ribbon Program. Under the Yellow Ribbon program, schools award additional funds to help offset the difference between tuition and what the GI Bill will pay. Those funds are matched by the VA. Not every school participates in the Yellow Ribbon program, and the number of awards and the amount awarded varies by school.
In addition, the Veterans’ Access, Choice and Accountability (Choice) Act, passed in 2014, mandated that public colleges and universities charge in-state tuition to “covered individuals” using the Post-9/11 GI Bill. However, the law defines “covered individual” as a veteran or dependent using the benefit within three years of the veteran leaving the military. That means currently serving families are not covered by this law; nor are those using their GI Bill benefits more than three years after transitioning out of the military.
Of course, there are other ways to make college more affordable. Your child may be eligible for loans or grants from his or her college. In order to be considered for financial aid, you must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Even if you think your student will not qualify for financial aid, experts advise completing and submitting the FAFSA.
Finally, there are dozens of scholarships available to military kids heading to college. Many local spouses’ clubs offer scholarships. The Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) operates the Scholarships for Military Children Program, which awards hundreds of grants annually. You can find a partial list of scholarships available for military children at Military OneSource. While the amounts of individual scholarships may seem small, they add up quickly and every little bit helps!
The process of applying to (and paying for) college can be overwhelming at times, at least to this stressed-out mom! There are so many details to manage and forms to fill out. With luck and a little perseverance, though, I’m hopeful the effort will pay off and my son will be able to attend the college of his choice.
Have you sent your military kid to college? How is your family paying for it? Share your stories and tips below!
Posted by Eileen Huck, Government Relations Deputy Director