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How to afford college as a veteran

If you’re a veteran transitioning from military service into civilian life, you may be considering what you’ll do next — professionally. If you’re like many veterans, you might use this new beginning as an opportunity to change careers or fulfill a lifelong ambition. And this often means pursuing a college degree.

There’s good news: your service to the United States may have earned you educational benefits that allow you to attend college for little to no out-of-pocket tuition costs.

Let’s take a look at financial aid for veterans and other funding options that can help make college as affordable as possible:

The GI Bill

If you were an active service member for at least 90 days after 9/11, received a Purple Heart and were honorably discharged after 9/11 or served for at least 30 continuous days and were honorably discharged after 9/11, you could qualify for higher education benefits through the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

Offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the bill provides monetary benefits for up to 36 months for the following expenses:

  • Tuition and fees: You may qualify for up to the full cost of public, in-state tuition and fees. Rates are capped for private or foreign schools.
  • Housing: If you’re in school at least half time, you can receive housing funds based on the average cost of living where your school is located.
  • Books and supplies: You can receive up to $1,000 per year for course materials and supplies.
  • Relocation: If you live in a county with six people or fewer per square mile and you’re moving at least 500 miles to go to college or have to fly by plane to your new location, you’re eligible to receive a one-time payment of $500.

The amount that you receive depends on how many months you served on active duty and other factors. You’re eligible for 100 percent of the bill benefits if you meet one of the following criteria:

  • You served on active duty and were awarded a Purple Heart on or after Sept. 11, 2001.
  • You were discharged for a service-related disability after serving on active duty at least 30 continuous days.
  • You served on active duty for at least 36 months.

If you don’t meet these requirements, the percentage of how much you’re eligible to receive depends on how long you served on active duty. You can apply for the GI Bill on the VA’s website, by mail, in person at a VA regional office or with the help of a VA representative.

Montgomery GI Bill® Active Duty & Reserves

Also under the GI Bill umbrella is the Montgomery GI Bill, which offers two educational benefits programs: Montgomery GI Bill Active Duty and Montgomery GI Bill Selected Reserve.

The Montgomery GI Bill Active Duty, also referred to as Chapter 30, can be used for college degree programs as well as technical and vocational courses, flight training, and even entrepreneurship classes offered by local small business development centers. To be eligible for this program, you need:

  • at least two years of active duty experience
  • an honorable discharge
  • a high school diploma or GED
  • To meet the criteria of one of these four categories, as outlined by the VA

The Montgomery GI Bill Selected Reserve provides education and training benefits to eligible members of the Selected Reserve, including the Army Reserve, Navy Reserve, Air Force Reserve, Marine Corps Reserve and Coast Guard Reserve, as well as the Army National Guard and Air National Guard. To qualify for these benefits, you’d need:

  • a high school diploma or GED
  • a six-year obligation to the Select Reserves signed after June 30, 1985
  • completion of your initial active-duty training
  • to remain in good standing with an active Selected Reserve unit

The amount of monthly benefits for both Montgomery programs depends on the type of education or training and whether the student is enrolled full- or part-time, or somewhere in between. View the current rate tables here.

Traditional Federal Student Aid: Loans and Grants for Veterans

It’s not only the VA that could provide you tuition assistance. The U.S. Department of Education also offers federal aid programs. Veterans, like any other college student, are eligible to apply for these federal grants and low-interest loans through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as the FAFSA.

Completing the FAFSA could help identify your eligibility for additional aid, beyond what you’ve earned through your military service. These options could include grants, which are need-based financial awards that do not need to be repaid. A few examples include:

  • Federal Pell grant – up to $5,920 per school year, as of August 2018
  • Federal Student Education Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) – $100 to $4,000 per school year, as of August 2018
  • TEACH grants – up to $4,000 per year for those working toward a teaching degree and plan to work in school serving low-income families, as of August 2018

While your VA benefits and federal grants may cover your tuition and fees completely, in some cases you may wish to borrow additional funds. This could be for living expenses, additional education costs, or in cases where you’re pursuing additional degrees but have already exhausted VA benefits. In those cases, a low-interest student loan, such as the Direct Loan or Perkins Loan, may come in handy. It’s also worth noting that members of the military may also be eligible for an interest rate cap on federal student loans, thanks to the Service Members Civil Relief Act.

Talk to the financial aid office at your school of interest to learn how federal grants and even student loans could help fill any gaps in what your veterans benefits already cover.

College Fund Programs

College Fund Programs are offered to service members when they first join the Military. Also called the GI Bill “kicker,” they offer an additional amount of money that can be added to the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

  • With the exception of the Navy and Air Force, each Service branch has College Fund Programs.
  • Incentives and amount received vary by Service branch.
  • A high school diploma is required.
  • Applicants must be enrolled in the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
  • The Air Force doesn’t have a College Fund Program, but it does have a community college.

Depending on your Service branch, test scores and occupation, there may also be additional requirements. Talk to a recruiter to find out if you are eligible and to ask for an application.

Work-study programs

While work-study is available to many students who fill out the FAFSA, the VA offers its own work-study program for veterans. With veterans work-study, you get to work a VA-approved part-time job while attending school. You’ll earn an hourly wage — either the federal minimum or the state minimum, whichever is higher — and you can work a total number of hours up to 25 times the number of weeks in your enrollment period.

To qualify for the program, you must meet the following criteria:

  • Be enrolled at least three-quarter time in a college degree, vocational or professional program.
  • Have found an open job at a VA facility or in a VA-related role at your school.
  • Are able to fulfill the work-study requirements while you still qualify for education benefits.
  • Are enrolled in an approved VA education benefits program to help pay for your college degree. This could include the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the Veterans’ Educational Assistance Program, the National Call to Service and more.

To apply for the program, you’ll need to fill out an Application for Work-Study Allowance (VA Form 22-8691). For more information about the program or application, contact your VA regional processing office.

Other Grants and Scholarships for Veterans: Private and Member Organizations

Aside from the benefits you’ve earned through your military service, other organizations may offer scholarships and grants for veterans. Here are few to consider:

  • AMVETS scholarships – offers a variety of scholarships with varying requirements and award amounts
  • The Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) Educational Scholarship Program – the PVA program may be of interest if you’re looking for scholarships for disabled veterans; it provides awards of $1,000 to qualified individuals
  • American Legion scholarships – this member-organization offers a number of merit-based educational awards for veterans, active duty service members and their dependents
  • Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) scholarships – offers need-based awards up to $5,000 for those who are retired, honorably discharged, active duty, or are a member of the National Guard or Reserve
  • School-specific scholarships – some universities, such as Franklin, office scholarships specifically for veterans

Additionally, searching online scholarship databases such as FastWeb, may reveal other options for those who’ve served in the military. As a reminder, you should always be diligent in your exploration of private scholarships in both in online directories and printed guides.

Other Tuition Assistance Considerations for Veterans & Their Dependents

In addition to tuition and living expenses covered by the GI Bill, grants, scholarships and loans, you may have access to some additional funds or earning opportunities. And, it’s not just veterans that qualify for some of these benefits. In this section, we’ll share a few other tips related to financial aid for veterans.

Tuition Discounts
Some institutions may also offer tuition discounts for military service. This is the case at Franklin University, where Howard says active duty military students can receive a significant reduction in per-credit rates. He adds that eligible spouses and dependent children can save 15 percent on a bachelor’s degree and 10 percent on a master’s.

Tutoring Assistance Allowance
If it’s been a while since you’ve hit the books and you find you need a little extra help in math, science, writing or another subject area, don’t worry: the VA could have you covered. As a helpful supplemental benefit, you may be eligible for up $1,200 to use toward tutoring assistance throughout your time in school.

VA Work-Study Program
The VA can also help you earn while you learn. Similar in nature to the federal work-study program offered through the Department of Education, the VA work-study program allows you to work either on campus or for an approved VA-related or government facility.

In this program, you’d have a set number of hours you’d agree to work during a term, and you can use your earnings toward your educational and living expenses.

Veteran Dependent Education Benefits
Financial aid for veterans’ spouses and dependent children may also be possible under the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Spouses may typically use the transferred benefits right away, while your children will not qualify until you’ve completed at least 10 years of service.

Additional programs from the Department of Education or VA geared toward financial aid for veteran spouses and dependents include:

  • The Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant, available to children whose parent or guardian died during their service in Iraq or Afghanistan after 9/11
  • The Marine Gunnery Sergeant John David Fry Scholarship, available to children and spouses of service members who died in the line of duty after Sept. 10, 2001
  • The Survivors’ and Dependents Educational Assistance (DEA) Program, available to qualified dependents of veterans who became permanently and totally disabled because of a service-related condition or who died while on active duty as a result of a service-related condition.

Even if combining these resources doesn’t fully pay for your tuition, it’ll likely take care of a significant chunk. Instead of stressing about how you’ll finance your education, you can focus on the important task of learning and preparing for your future career.

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