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Want to Go to College for Free? Consider the Military.

Nov 17th, 2020 • Kristen A.

Free college has been a campaign platform for years now and until it happens, it’s just a promise. The motivation behind the platform, in its many forms, boils down to debt reduction. Higher education has only gotten more expensive and unattainable over the last several decades. If your hope is to graduate with a modest amount of debt you’ll want to explore all possible options. So, I’m here to talk about a viable option for many — military service.

I recognize that serving in the military isn’t an option for everyone. There are physical, educational, and mental qualifiers that don’t allow everyone to serve. I want to make sure, if it is an option for you, that you know the benefits offered in exchange for four years of service. 

At this time there are two primary educational assistance programs for service members, The Montgomery and Post-9/11 GI Bill. Both are commonly referred to as “The GI Bill.” There are some distinctions between the two but generally speaking they offer funds to be used for tuition, housing, and some miscellaneous expenses. For the sake of simplicity, let’s focus on the benefits of the Post-9/11 GI Bill. 

What does the Post-9/11 GI Bill offer? 

The GI Bill pays your tuition. If you decide to attend a public school the GI Bill will pay 100% of your in-state tuition. You can also use the GI Bill to pay for private school tuition. However, there is an annual cap which is currently about $24,000. If you attend a private school with tuition greater than the annual maximum you’ll need to cover the difference with grants, scholarships, or loans. It’s vital, even if your tuition is covered, that you complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Veteran status makes you an independent student, regardless of age. As a result you might be eligible for a Pell Grant

There are select schools who choose to participate in what’s called the “Yellow-Ribbon” program. In summary, Yellow-Ribbon schools agree to waive a portion of their tuition for qualifying veterans. The VA in turn matches the waiver offered by the school. This program allows many veterans to attend private institutions for little to no cost despite exceeding the annual tuition coverage maximum. Some examples of Yellow-Ribbon schools are: Harvard, Cornell, and Duke. The GI Bill covers more than just the pure cost of attendance. 

Some active duty military are eligible to receive BAH (Base Allowance for Housing). This monthly amount is a non taxable benefit designed to cover the majority of housing expenses for those who qualify. The GI Bill offers an allowance similar in nature called Monthly Housing Allowance (MHA). These allowances are calculated in similar fashion. They use your zip code to determine the government mandated amount to be used for house expenses. For example, a verteran attending Purdue University eligible to receive MHA receives a monthly allowance of $1407/month in 2020. 

There are some miscellaneous benefits like a book stipend. But the majority of the benefit is in the tuition and housing allowance. 

What types of programs can I use the GI Bill for? 

Most commonly the GI Bill is used to fund the cost of a four year degree. This use is what prompted this blog in the first place. Just know the GI Bill can also be used for eligible programs including, but not limited to, licensing & certification, flight training, vocational or technical training, and some apprenticeship programs. If you’re considering using the GI Bill to fund a program other than a traditional degree program please speak with an employee within a Voluntary Education Program. There are offices on most bases which employ education counselors who help you understand program eligibility. 

Opportunity Cost 

With any decision there is a “next best alternative”. There are many sacrifices to be made in deciding to pledge four years of your life to “the man.” Delaying your pursuit of a degree could provide time to decide what you want to do. Alternatively, this means earning your degree four years later than if you went straight to school. You’ll have little to no say in some important components of your life. Your military branch of choice will decide where you move, when you can come home for vacation, and how often you’ll deploy. Within the military branch you may or may not get to choose the job you’re assigned. There are numerous factors to consider. It’s not my place to determine whether you believe the trade off is worth it. 

I recognize the gravity of this decision. Trading four years of “freedom” to obtain a free education is a big deal. My hope is that you’re simply aware of the options available beyond financing your four year degree. If you’re considering taking advantage of the GI Bill call one of the Voluntary Education Programs on a base. They have counselors who can help explain the benefits and how they can help in your pursuit of higher education. 

Hey Money is a subscription based service that allows you to start a relationship with a financial guide for just $19.99 a month. Your financial expert can help you weigh the pros and cons of huge life decisions like where to attend college, how to pay for it, as well as considering alternatives like joining the military. To learn more and purchase your subscription, click here.

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