by Bianca Strzalkowski
The pursuit of a college education often includes a hefty price tag. It’s an exasperating cycle. Job seekers are told a degree, licensure or certification gains them more bargaining power for future salaries. But, the cost of attaining that education often ends with decades of debt that students have to work double-time to pay down. However, just like with most big ticket investments, a concentrated plan can breed a more successful (and cost effective) experience. There is such a concentrated focus on continuing education within the military community that various forms of college affordability resources do exist for military members, veterans, spouses and dependent children.
First Things First: Lean On Your Peers
Eddy Mentzer, Associate Director for Family Readiness & Well-Being of the Office of Family Readiness Policy, says there is an often-untapped resource available within the community: peers.
“There is another vital resource that is often forgotten when it comes to your education and that is other military spouses. Ask around, find out how they managed, what are their tips and tools,” Mentzer said. “Education is not easy and it is expensive. But not just from a financial standpoint. You invest yourself as well. It takes time and you want to make sure that investment is worthwhile.”
Social media platforms, such as Facebook, offer groups that connect people from across geographic locations. Veterans or spouses are typically comfortable sharing insight on experiences, good and bad. They can offer a starting point on what it is like to attend certain schools along with what financial aid programs they successfully used. Moreover, family readiness groups, spouse clubs, veteran service organizations or installation education offices are another avenue to gather an intimate look at what has worked for other students.
Check Out The Annual Programs
Every year, the same set of scholarship or grant programs open up to those students with some sort of military affiliation.
-Post 9/11 GI Bill: A valued education benefit, Post 9/11 GI Bill covers the cost of a veteran’s education and has a component, known as TEB (Transfer of Education Benefits) that allows for transfer to a qualifying family member. Eligibility requirements can be found at www.benefits. va.gov/gibill/post911_transfer.asp.
-Tuition Assistance (for service members): Requirements vary per branch. Ask your unit’s education officer or installation education center for details.
-Private Organizations: National Military Family Association, Council for College and Military Educators, Pat Tillman Foundation, ThanksUSA, MOAA and DeCA are just some of the organizations offering annual scholarship offerings for military members, spouses and/or military kids.
-Branch Aid Societies: Each service branch has an affiliated branch aid organization that opens up financial assistance programs somewhere between December – March (for Air Force); May (for Navy, Marine Corps, Army); ongoing (Coast Guard).
-MyCAA Tuition Assistance (for military spouses): Up to $4000 in financial assistance for spouses with a service member whose rank must be between: E1-E5, O1-O2, W1-W2. Strict requirements for eligibility can be found here: https://aiportal.acc.af.mil/mycaa/.
TIP: MAP OUT APPLICATION DEADLINES ON A CALENDAR TO ALLOW FOR PLENTY OF TIME TO GATHER REQUIRED DOCUMENTS, LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION, ESSAYS, AND OTHER PAPERWORK THAT MAY BE NEEDED.
Find A School That Will Maximize Your Dollars
Reviewing a school’s accreditation will help determine the value of education offered at that institution. If a school does not have the proper rating federally or regionally, the piece of paper earned may be of no use when trying to use that educational achievement for career purposes.
How to search accreditation: Department of Education or Council for Higher Education Accreditation
Mentzer adds that students, specifically spouses, should look at the entire picture of their military life when considering what type of program to choose.
“There are so many factors to consider when choosing a school, program and even individual classes. One of the keys is to think about the future. If a military spouse is pursuing a four-year (or more) degree program, more than likely they will experience at least one move during that time. Will the program move with you, is there a distance learning option? What if you start or grow a family and have to take time off… can you pause the program? Many military spouses are faced with switching schools as well…will those classes transfer?” he said. There are so many tools out there now that did not even exist five years ago. Now you can go online and review professors to see how they conduct their classes. This is very important when it comes to distance learning. What are the requirements and will you be able to meet them based on your other responsibilities?”
Try Testing Out Of A Course
Each course taken incurs hundreds of dollars of cost along with dozens of hours of studying, completing assignments. There is an alternative option to spending a full semester taking a class: CLEP — College Level Exam Placement. For a fraction of the cost of tuition, and free for eligible military members and dependents, the CLEP allows students to take a test and receive full credit for that class. Installation centers offer free materials to prepare for those exams. To find out if you qualify for free access, check the website at https://clep.collegeboard.org/military
TIP: EVEN IF YOU ARE UNABLE TO TAKE AN EXAM FOR FREE, CLEP EXAMS ARE ONLY $80, WHICH IS CONSIDERABLY LESS THAN THE COST OF A COLLEGE COURSE.
Reports show that tuition costs within the U.S. continue to increase. Data revealed between 2003–04 and 2013–14, prices for undergraduate tuition, fees, room, and board at public institutions rose 34 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Yet, aspiring college students who have a military affiliation do have an advantage in that so many different forms of financial aid are available and do not have to be paid back. The time invested in researching existing programs and relying on advice from other military-connect students will ultimately decrease the cost of earning that college degree.