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Online College for Military Spouses & Dependents Financial Aid, Tips & Expert Advice for Families of Servicemembers

According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, the VA has provided educational benefits to 773,000 Veterans and their family members since the Post- 9/11 GI Bill came into effect in 2009. Due to many factors, including the number of times military families are expected to relocate, many of these students take full advantage of online learning opportunities. With so many servicemembers and their families taking advantage of military education benefits, it makes sense to understand how to use military funding to full advantage for online college and garner a few tips on the best ways to ensure higher education works even while doing the hard work of moving from one place to another.

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Online Learning Benefits for Military Spouses

The benefits of online learning are often magnified for military spouses and dependents. Here are just a few reasons why distance learning might be the best option.

Online Learning Matters for Military Personnel and Families Who…

Are stationed overseas with no access to higher education.

In many countries, higher education is rare and expensive, assuming it exists at all. In cases like that, military spouses and dependents can turn to online education from a college or university in the United States, where they can pursue their education even in an area where schools are lacking.

Are serving in different time zones.

When the sun is shining in the United States and everyone is going about their day, the military family might be living in an area where it’s the dead of night. This can cause serious problems for those who are taking synchronous online courses, where they are expected to join in with a chat or lecture at a certain time. On the other hand, asynchronous online learning is perfectly suited to those situations.

Are faced with the possibility of sudden transfers.

When you’re in the military, where you live depends on where the military needs you to be. A sudden transfer to another state or even another country could come through with little notice. If you’re in a traditional school situation, that means a lot of hard work vanishes as you withdraw from school or take a leave of absence. But with online learning, the education wheels keep on turning, allowing you to pick up right where you left off.

Are living on base.

Even in the United States, living on base can mean living in an area where the nearest college is a very long drive away. Besides that, it can be tough to get away from your responsibilities long enough to sit in a classroom several hours each day. Studying from home makes life much easier for those military spouses who need to stay on base.

Important Note on Accreditation

A school is accredited when it has been evaluated by an independent body and found to meet the rigorous expectations of a high-quality education. Accreditation matters to the government; a military spouse must attend an accredited school in order to receive full funding benefits. Therefore, when making a short list of schools to attend, students should always look at accreditation as one of their “must-have” factors.

Education Assistance for Military Spouses

Knowing what’s available for military spouses when it comes to financial aid and educational funding is vitally important, as it can help them avoid a prohibitively expensive tuition bill.

Funding begins with most students, regardless of military affiliation, with the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The FAFSA collects information concerning income and family size, which is then reviewed by the government to determine how much financial aid a person will receive toward their higher education goals. The FAFSA isn’t just used by the federal government; it is also necessary to apply for most state aid, college scholarships and local funding. Even some scholarship and grants awarded by small businesses and organizations rely on the FAFSA when awarding need-based funding.

After filling out the FAFSA, military spouses should look into what the government offers for those in the armed services. Here are a few of the options that deserve a closer look.

  • GI Bill Transfer

    The Post-9/11 GI Bill allows for a certain amount of funding to service members to pay for higher education expenses. The GI Bill Transfer allows those service members to transfer all 36 months, or the portion of the GI Bill they have not used, to their spouse and/or children for their educational expenses. There are many rules concerning who is eligible to transfer their GI Bill assistance; to make sure it applies to your particular situation, visit the Transfer of Education Benefits website.

  • MyCAA

    Military Spouse Career Advancement Accounts provide up to $4,000 for the higher education of military spouses. This can be applied to degree programs, licenses or other credentials that can help boost employment options. It’s important to remember that this benefit is available only for those married to a service member in active duty and at certain pay grades. And while it provides benefits for those who in all branches of the military, the National Guard and reserve, it is not available to those in the Coast Guard.

  • Dependents Education Assistance Program

    Those who have a spouse who died in the service of the country, is permanently disabled as a result of injuries sustained in the course of duty, or falls under a variety of other situations (such as missing in action) might be eligible for the DEAP. Those eligible can receive up to 45 months of education benefits. For more information, contact the Department of Veterans Affairs.

  • Marine GySgt John D. Fry Scholarship

    The Fry Scholarship provides education benefits to the surviving spouses or dependents of service members killed in the line of duty after September 10, 2001. This scholarship provides in-state tuition to a public school, or private school tuition capped at a set amount each year, a monthly housing allowance and a stipend for books and supplies. A spouse can use the scholarship for 15 years after the service member’s death, or until they remarry. However, some surviving spouses of service members who died before December 31, 2005 might have extended eligibility.

Some programs are undergoing changes that might broaden what’s available to service members and their families. For instance, the Forever GI Bill, signed into law in August 2017, makes the GI Bill available to more people and allows them more time to use the benefits.

It’s also important to remember that there might be other programs for military professionals and their families that can help pay the costs of tuition, books and more. For instance, the Yellow Ribbon Program is administered through colleges and universities that choose to participate. It provides additional funding to service members and their families.

Scholarships for Military Spouses & Dependents

Trying to obtain scholarships is always a great idea, as this is funding that doesn’t have to be paid back after graduation. Here are a few to get you started.

  • Army Scholarship Foundation

    Spouses of active duty military members are eligible for a variety of scholarships through this foundation, with funding between $500 and $2,000 annually. The student must be attending an accredited institution and pursing an undergraduate degree.

  • National Military Family Association Scholarships

    These awards range from $500 to $2,500, and are designated for spouses of service members. Funds up of up $1,000 are also available to spouses who are starting their own business.

  • Pat Tillman Foundation

    Military spouses who are seeking a full-time, four-year degree through certain U.S. colleges are eligible to apply to become a Tillman Scholar. This award covers tuition, books, fees and living expenses.

  • Salute to Spouses

    There are a few scholarship opportunities available here, including the Bryant & Stratton College Online scholarship of up to $6,000 for a military spouse to apply toward an online degree.

  • ThanksUSA

    This scholarship of up to $3,000 goes to spouses of eligible personnel who are attending an accredited college, university or technical school. Scholarships are based on need. Other grants and scholarships might be available through this organization.

5 Secrets to Staying on Top of Online Classes While Relocating for the Military

Relocating can be tough for numerous reasons, and keeping up with college work while making a move can seem like an impossible task. Fortunately, there are a few tactics dedicated military spouses can use when they’re determined to make that move and keep their college moving at the same time.

From the day you learn about the move, start planning to make it a smooth transition. Look at each class and determine how far you are into it, how much more work must be done, what your deadlines are, and what time periods are non-negotiable concerning attendance; for example, if you must log on at a certain time in order to view a lecture with the rest of the class but you will be traveling at that time, other arrangements must be made. The earlier these things are tackled, the better.

Let each instructor know that you’ll be moving. Give them a proposed plan of action in getting all your work done on time. You should also provide them with contact information that will work even after you have left your current address.

If it’s possible to get some coursework done early, that’s a great weight lifted from your shoulders. This is especially true if your online program allows you to work at your own pace. You could write essays or take assessments early, thus allowing a little breathing room during the move.

Some online schools require specific notifications if you are moving out of state or out of the country. Look into the school guidelines to find out what you must do to keep them informed in a timely manner. If the guidelines aren’t clear, get in touch with the admissions office.

During a big move, it’s important to ensure your tuition assistance keeps coming, your scholarship money still goes where it needs to go and that you get all assignments in a timely manner. Since there might be periods of time with no Internet connection, make certain every interested party has your new information, such as new address and direct phone number, before you make the move.

From the Expert

Nolan Martin is a military officer and creator of www.BudgetChaos.com. He graduated from the United States Military Academy and is completing his Master’s Degree in Financial Planning. Nolan applies military discipline to help readers live the financial life of their dreams.

Your wife used MyCAA to help with an associate degree. Tell us more about that.

The MyCAA Scholarship is a military program that provides up to $4,000 of tuition assistance to military spouses. In order to qualify, the military service member must be in pay grades E-1 to E-5, W-1 to W-2, or O-1 to O-2.

Once you know what program you would like to pursue at a participating institution, the process is very easy. The only thing we wish we would have done differently was start sooner to get the full benefit of $4,000. If the military service member is promoted to a rank above the requirements, then you will no longer qualify for the MyCAA Scholarship.

What are your top financial advice tips for military members and their families when it comes to higher education?

The price of colleges varies drastically from option to option. Ensure you go to a school that fits within your budget. According to CNBC, the average American in their 30s has a student loan balance of $34,033.

Apply for all forms of financial aid and scholarships to lower the financial burden of college.

It is never too early to start saving for your children’s college! The Education Savings Account (ESA) currently allows you to place up to $2,000 per year per child in a tax-advantaged account. If properly invested in growth mutual funds, it can grow to a significant amount and cover most tuition expenses.

Do you have any tips for students about staying on top of their schoolwork while deployed or moving?

I’m currently completing my Master’s Degree in Financial Planning while deployed in Iraq. My best tip for military members to complete their college coursework while deployed is to discuss your decision with your commander and 1SG. In most cases, they will bend over backwards to ensure you have access to a computer and the ability to complete necessary coursework. However, you must be realistic with yourself on the amount of coursework your mission will allow you to complete. For all service members just starting out, I recommend only signing up for one class until you understand your education and mission requirements.

Anything you want to add about military benefits for higher education?

I recommend all service members take advantage of their Tuition Assistance (TA) towards an associate, bachelor’s, or master’s degree. The Department of Defense offers a $250 cap and an annual ceiling of $4,500 towards completing higher education. TA is currently capped at 130 semester hours towards a baccalaureate degree and 39 semester hours of graduate credit. The service member will incur an Active Duty Service Obligation (ADSO) of two years after the date of completion of the last course that TA is used.

By using the TA, the service member is not tapping into the Post-9/11 GI Bill and reserving the option to transfer the educational benefits to a spouse or child (if they qualify).

Resources

The following resources provide more information on higher education for military spouses.

  • Go Army Ed

    This site for U.S. Army service members and families provides information on educational opportunities and assistance available.

  • Military.com

    Provides those in the military and their families with a wealth of information on a variety of programs and benefits for educational pursuits.

  • Today’s Military

    A site focused on everything military, from joining and training to taking advantage of all the benefits service has to offer.

  • Veterans Benefits Administration

    Provides a great deal of information on a variety of programs for military members and their families, including information on educational assistance.

  • Vets.gov

    This helpful site provides further information on benefits, including information on transferring the GI Bill to a spouse.