Like all parents, service members often need help to pay the high cost of college tuition. Fortunately, many scholarships, assistance programs, and benefits exist just for the children of service members. In addition to more traditional forms of aid, in-state tuition is now available in some states for service members' children who couldn't get these lower rates before. Beyond the tuition costs, a once-a-year travel benefit is available for some students with military parents assigned outside the continental United States. Tuition funds are available if military families know where to look. The following information will point you in the right direction.
Where to start
Many programs require the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. This form is required when applying for most types of federal aid. Some schools and scholarships also use it to screen applicants for tuition assistance. Students fill out the FAFSA, but parents also must provide financial information if the student is their dependent. The form requires the previous year's tax return and other tax information for the student and parents, as well as bank statements and investment information. There are critical deadlines involved in completing the FAFSA, so it's best to check the website many months before the student plans to start school.
Families also may find helpful information at FinAid: The SmartStudent® Guide to Financial Aid and ScholarshipHelp.org.
Types of scholarships
Some scholarships are open to all children of service members, including those whose parents have retired from the military. If your child meets specified requirements, he or she may face less competition for scholarship money.
- Scholarships based on the service of a military parent. Scholarships may be available if the parent belongs to a certain branch of Service; serves in a specific specialty; served as a part of a specific military effort, war, or on board a specific vessel; or was injured or died during military service. A student may discover a scholarship if his or her parent or grandparent belongs to certain military-related organizations.
- Scholarships based on a student's attributes. Students pursuing specific careers may qualify for certain scholarships. A student's heritage or a certain race or ethnic background may be the requirement for some scholarships. Or a student might find a scholarship based on his or her hometown or if he or she plans to study abroad.
Searching for scholarships
Because there are so many kinds of scholarships, finding one for your child can be confusing. As you begin your search, be sure to keep the following in mind:
- Target your efforts. Because many scholarship programs ask applicants to write long essays or perform other time-consuming tasks, it's important to encourage your child to target the scholarships he or she is most likely to receive.
- Be wary. Be cautious of websites or agencies that charge money for their searches. Avoid scholarships for which a student must pay an application fee. These scholarships are often frauds. Before applying for any scholarship, be sure the program is legitimate. And be careful about sending out financial aid forms since the information they contain could allow someone to steal your identity.
- Look at the many free websites available. Collegescholarships.org offers a comprehensive review of college scholarship websites.
Specific scholarship and loan programs
Several scholarships focus on military children. They include scholarships sponsored by:
- Air Force Aid Society. The General Henry H. Arnold Education Grant Program gives grants to children of active duty Air Force members, as well as some Reservists and retirees. Grants are need-based. See Air Force Aid Society.
- Army Emergency Relief. The MG James Ursano Scholarship Fund offers scholarships for children of active duty Soldiers, retirees, or those who died in service. These scholarships can be used for undergraduate studies, vocational training, or to help a student prepare to enter a military academy. See Army Emergency Relief.
- Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society. The Vice Admiral E.P. Travers Scholarship and Loan program provides financial aid to children and spouses of active duty and retired Sailors and Marines. There are also scholarships for the children of those killed in action. See Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society.
- Scholarships for military children. Every commissary gives at least one scholarship. The scholarships of at least $1,500 per student are supported by the companies that sell goods to the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA). See Scholarships for Military Children.
Loans and Grants
The federal government offers some low- and no-interest loans, although they are not specifically designed for service members' children. Several types of loans are available. These loans require students to complete the FAFSA form. Parents apply and pay for the PLUS loan. Students apply and pay for Stafford and Perkins loans. Such loans operate differently, so it's important to read about them carefully before applying. The earlier students apply, the more likely they may be to receive the Perkins loans, which are the least costly of the student loans. For detailed information, search the Department of Education Student Aid on the Web.
General federal grant programs also are available for all students. The most notable is the Federal Pell Grant, which is given to students based on financial need. Unlike a loan, the grant does not need to be repaid. To be eligible, students must be earning a bachelor's degree. Access Student Aid on the Web.
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) offers programs that help cover the cost of tuition for military service members and - in some cases - their dependents.
- The GI Bill®. If you are eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill®, you may be able to transfer the benefits to your children. To transfer benefits, you must have been serving on active duty or in the Reserves as of August 1, 2009 and meet certain time-in-service requirements. Details are available at VA GI Bill®.
- Dependents Educational Assistance. This VA program is given to children whose parent died, is permanently and totally disabled from active duty service, is listed as missing in action, or is a prisoner of war. It provides assistance for undergraduate and graduate programs, certificate programs, apprenticeships, and on-the-job training. Children may use this benefit between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six. Visit GI Bill®.
In-state tuition benefits
Qualifying for in-state tuition is a great money saver. As of July 2009, members of the armed forces on active duty and their families became eligible to receive in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities in the state where they reside or are permanently stationed. Family members will continue to receive the in-state tuition rate as long as they remain continuously enrolled at the institution, even if the service member is reassigned outside the state.
Speaking with your child's future school
Students should talk with financial aid counselors at the schools they wish to attend since many offer scholarships that are not widely advertised. Others are willing to present students with grants, work-study programs, internships, and other sources of financial support. In-state tuition rates might be negotiable in certain circumstances as well, given essentially as a scholarship. Well-qualified military children with excellent grades are often in a position to negotiate with the school of their choice for needed financial aid. Be sure to pursue financial aid throughout your child's education. Keep in mind that many scholarships and grants are given to older students, rather than incoming freshmen.