The following is a guest post about a topic near and dear to my heart right now, as we embark on the adventure of finding a good-fit university for our oldest son. The college search and application maze is never simple to navigate, but for military families who move frequently, especially those, like ours, who are living overseas, the process is especially complicated.
Thank you, Sara Furlong for helping to simplify the experience for Military families like ours.
Milspouses are known for making magic happen on a tight budget, but the challenge of paying for college fills most parents with dread. ‘How will we ever afford it?’ is a question that keeps many of us up at night.
But wait! There are lots of actions you can take and opportunities you can seize to make college more affordable. Whether your child is about to embark on college or about to leave the womb, below are a few tips that will help you out. If your children are young, you’ll probably want to read this whole article. If they’re nearing college age, you may want to jump ahead to #3.
1. Get your financial house in order as soon as possible.
If your children are young and time is on your side, now is the time to take care of outstanding credit card debt, save an emergency fund, and set your retirement savings on autopilot. Once your financial situation is tidy, you’ll be in a better position (and mind set) to begin saving for college.
2. Save, save, save!
One of the most important keys to affording college is to get strategic about saving – ASAP! Here are some tips to get you started:
• Be aware of the numbers. A good place to start is to find out how much you’re going to need to save. Once you’ve done that and are totally overwhelmed, you can spend a few minutes freaking out. Okay, now stop. Take a deep breath. Keep in mind that around 75% of students receive financial aid and, as the dependent of a military service member, your child is likely to have access to a number of opportunities that will help make college even more affordable. (More on that later!) There are many ways to tackle the cost of college. So decide on an amount to save that is realistic for your family and a military budget.
• Set up an education savings account like a Coverdell IRA or a 529 account. Contributing faithfully to a plan like these over time will allow you to save a surprising amount, thanks to the magic of compounding interest. Plus, the associated tax benefits allow you to save even more.
• Use salary increases and special pay to further your financial goals. It’s hard to resist the temptation to spend extra money on things you’ve been wanting and needing, but your self-control will pay off. When you get a raise, pretend it never happened and invest the money in your children’s college savings accounts.
• Squirrel away small amounts where you can. Skip the latte or dessert and save that money. A few dollars here and there adds up big time.
3. Take advantage of military education benefits.
Military spouses and children serve their country, too. That’s why there are a number of military education benefits offered to dependents of military veterans and service members.
In addition to federal benefits, check with your child’s schools of interest. They may offer additional funding to military dependents that is not widely known or advertised.
4. Apply for scholarships, financial aid, and other funding help.
Scholarships can take a significant bite out of the cost of college. Some will be based on your child’s past performance in academics and activities, others are available strictly to military dependents.
We suggest you begin your college scholarship treasure hunt by looking at opportunities available for military children. (Scholarships for Military Children)
From there, seek out financial aid, merit-based scholarships, grants, and other forms of tuition help. Military One Source offers a good outline of places to start.
5. Choose a military-friendly school.
If you select a college with support staff and services devoted specifically to helping military students and their families succeed, you will be less likely to miss out on available opportunities that make school more affordable.
Even more important: many of these schools offer reduced tuition rates or grants for veterans, service members, and their spouses and dependents.
For example, Drexel University extends military tuition discounts of up to 30% off to the children of active duty service members.
Trident University International is another military-friendly college that offers military education grants that reduce tuition by up to 36% for military spouses and dependents. They also have a Military Assistance Center that can walk you through the process and help you find funding for as much of your college costs as possible – sometimes even 100%!
There are many schools that offer deep tuition discounts to military dependents, so do your homework and shop around.
6. Consider online colleges.
Online college is a great option for students who are military dependents, especially if the family is stationed overseas. By pursuing an online education, the student can stay close to loved ones, take full advantage of their opportunity to live in a foreign country, and still work toward their degree goals.
Another great perk: online schools are often far less expensive. There’s a good chance you’ll pay very little out-of-pocket if you can find a program that suits your needs, has affordable tuition, offers military discounts or grants, and honors military education benefits.
Some great schools that are trusted examples of military friendly online colleges include:
• Trident University International (https://www.trident.edu/military-and-veteran/)
• Pennsylvania State University—World Campus (http://www.worldcampus.psu.edu/military)
• Daytona State College (https://www.daytonastate.edu/online/)
• Martinsburg College (http://martinsburgcollege.edu/)
• Western Kentucky University (https://www.wku.edu/online/military/)
• Central Michigan University (http://global.cmich.edu/military/)
• Drexel University (http://www.drexel.com/military/tuition.aspx)
These schools may be a good place to start when researching your options.
7. Seek out additional perks if your student will be overseas.
If your son or daughter decides to go to a brick-and-mortar American college while the rest of the family is stationed abroad, you’ll encounter some additional challenges. Thankfully, some programs exist to help.
A great example: travel benefits for college students who are military dependents. If your student meets the criteria they will be entitled to a free flight to visit the family each fiscal year. If your family plans to take a trip elsewhere, the student can also meet you at that alternate location, as long as the cost of the flight does not exceed the price of a flight home.
To arrange this, just visit your personnel office to acquire student travel orders. You will also need proof of the student’s full-time enrollment status, and a copy of your PCS orders, which should list your child as a dependent. Once you have all that, you can book the student’s trip through the military travel office.
As you can see, there’s a lot to think about when you’re planning for a child’s college education – especially when you’re living on a military salary and stationed overseas. Hopefully this article has provided you with some good, hopeful jumping-off points that will help you take action and set your child on a solid path to an affordable education.