College Financial Aid for Military Families

Updated: December 24, 2022
In this Article

    There are many ways military families can get financial help for college, ranging from the most obvious (transfer of Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits from a military member to dependents) to lesser-known by-state resources, grants, and tuition waivers.

    Financial aid options and resources for military families

    USMC photo by Sgt. Emmanuel Ramos

    It may take a little research and some digging around to find the most appropriate military financial aid for family members for you, but the effort is definitely worth the savings you’ll realize when it’s time to add up the benefits.

    College Financial Aid For Families: The Post 9/11 GI Bill

    The Post 9/11 GI Bill allows currently serving military members to transfer their education benefits to DEERS-enrolled dependents. The catch is that this transfer requires a minimum time in service (six years) and a new four-year re-enlistment commitment.

    According to the VA official site, the following rules apply:

    • Those meeting the six-year minimum time-in-service requirement may transfer any unused portion of their Post 9/11 GI Bill benefit. That includes all 36 months of benefits in cases where none of the GI Bill has yet been utilized.
    • The Department of Defense or Department of Homeland Security reserves the right to limit the number of transferable months of GI Bill benefits.
    • The following family members (who are registered in DEERS) are eligible to use transferred Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits; spouses, one or more dependent children, or any combination of spouse and child.

    DoD Guidance in 2018 limits the GI Bill transfer option to those who meet minimum time-in-service requirements but also who have 16 or fewer years of total military service (active or reserve). This restriction takes effect in July 2019.

    How Transferred GI Bill Benefits Can Be Used To Pay Education Expenses

    In cases where the transfer of entitlement is approved, the spouse or dependent children may apply up to the maximum amount of remaining GI Bill entitlement and money is available to pay for tuition, housing, plus a stipend for books/supplies. The GI Bill housing stipend is based on the location of the school rather than the student’s address.

    When Military Children And Military Spouses Can Use Transferred Post 9/11 GI Bill Benefits

    Post 9/11 GI Bill rules for transferring the benefit to a spouse include (but may not be limited to) the following, as per the Department of Veterans Affairs official site:

    • Military spouses are permitted to use GI Bill benefits immediately upon transfer.
    • Spouses may use the benefit while the service member is active duty or after leaving the service, though this policy may change in 2019.
    • Military spouses will not receive the GI Bill monthly housing allowance while the service member remains on active duty.
    • Spouses can access the transferred Post 9/11 GI Bill benefit for up to 15 years after the veteran leaves active duty. This policy may change in 2019.

    Post 9/11 GI Bill rules for transferring the benefit to dependent children are not identical to the rules that cover spouses. The rules for transferring Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits to dependent children include (but may not be limited to) the following, as per the Department of Veterans Affairs official site:

    • Depending military children can use transferred GI Bill benefits only after the service member completes a minimum of 10 years total military service.
    • Dependent children can use the GI Bill benefit while the service member is active duty or after separating from the military. This policy is subject to change in 2019.
    • A high school diploma or equivalency certificate is required unless the dependent is 18 or older.
    • Unlike military spouses, dependent children are eligible for the Post 9/11 GI Bill monthly housing allowance even when the service member is still serving.

    Transferred Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits may be used even if the dependent child marries, or if the spouses happen to divorce. The service member has the right to cancel the transfer of Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits at any time. Learn more about GI Bill benefits transfers at the VA.Gov official website.

    College Financial Aid For Military Spouses And Dependent Children: State Education Benefits

    One of the best-kept secrets about paying for college for military spouses and dependent children? Military benefits offered by individual states. There are a variety of scholarships, grants, and tuition waivers for qualifying military spouses and children.

    Some of these are dependent on the veteran’s discharge, VA-rated disabilities, financial need, the veteran’s combat status, and much more.

    The Minnesota GI Bill is an excellent example of one such benefit. Unrelated to the GI Bill offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Minnesota GI Bill is a state-funded program offering financial aid to qualifying veterans, dependents, and military spouses.

    Up to $10,000 is available to qualifying surviving spouses or children “of a person who has served in the military at any time”, and who has died or has a VA-rated 100% permanent and total disability as a direct result military service.

    Another state-funded program is found in Texas under legislation known as the Hazelwood Act. This allows up to 150 hours of tuition waivers at state-supported schools.

    It may seem daunting to try a search for state-supported military education benefits for dependent children and military spouses, but many of these benefits can be found at your home state’s official site or the state Department of Veterans Affairs.

    When searching for your state’s Department of Veterans Affairs official site, be sure to include the name of the state in your search to differentiate from the federal Department of Veterans Affairs official site.

    That said, the VA official site has an index of State Veterans Affairs offices you can use to begin your search.

    Educational Assistance From Military Aid Societies

    Each branch of the military has an aid society:

    • Army Emergency Relief
    • Air Force Aid Society
    • Navy/Marine Corps Relief Society
    • Coast Guard Foundation

    Each one offers a different type of assistance; the Army version includes the Spouse Education Assistance Program which offers up to $2,100 or more depending on need, circumstances and other factors. This is just one of several options open to qualifying military families.

    The Air Force Aid Society also has a variety of scholarships, grants, and other assistance programs. One is the competitive, need-based General Henry H. Arnold Education Assistance Grant program offering up to $4,000 in education funds based on the specific needs of the student.

    The Navy/Marine Corps Relief Society features an interest-free Spouse Tuition Aid Loan Program (STAP) for spouses who are stationed outside the Continental United States (CONUS) and also a variety of need-based grant options for financial aid up to $3,000 per academic year depending on circumstances. There are many other options available in addition to STAP.

    The Coast Guard Foundation offers several college financial aid packages including The Captain Ernest W. Fox Perpetual Scholarship, “for qualified active duty Coast Guard, civil service employee personnel or their dependents at the Coast Guard Aviation Logistic Center.“

    Other Coast Guard options include The Lisa Cook Reed Spouse Education Scholarship program, designed to assist “non-military spouses of Enlisted Coast Guard members in ranks E3-E6 studying at a nationally or regionally accredited institution with the award covering expenses like books, school fees, transportation, and childcare costs”.

    MyCAA Scholarships For Military Spouses

    The My Career Advancement Account (MyCAA) Scholarship awards up to $4,000 of financial assistance to eligible military spouses working toward licensure, professional certification, or an Associate’s degree in a “portable career field and occupation” that could travel with a military family.

    Restrictions To MyCAA

    There are certain restrictions for the MyCAA program including a time limit (the education must be completed within three years of application) and rank requirements (Enlisted ranks E-1 to E-5, Warrant Officer ranks W-1 and W-2, and officers O-1 and O-2).

    The degree pursued cannot be a “no concentration” degree such as Liberal Arts or General Studies. Books and supplies are not covered in the scholarship, and reimbursements for money already spent are not possible.

    Getting Started With MyCAA

    Military spouses must create an account at the MyCAA official site and begin filling out application data to determine eligibility. Spouses may be required to have the assistance of an academic advisor and submit the application data in a “typed format”.

    The Survivors’ and Dependents’ Educational Assistance (DEA) Program

    The DEA program offers college financial assistance to qualifying dependents of veterans who are VA-rated as totally and permanently disabled. This benefit is also available to the dependents of veterans who died on duty or as the result of a service-connected medical issue. Qualifying children and military spouses may apply for DEA benefits.

    Amount Of Available DEA Benefits

    Up to 45 months of education benefits may be available, which can be used for higher education degrees, certificate programs, approved apprenticeship programs, even on-the-job training.

    The VA official site reports that some eligible dependents may be eligible for up to 81 months of GI Bill benefits if the Survivors and Dependents Educational Assistance program is utilized in conjunction with an entitlement from other VA education programs.

    DEA and the Fry Scholarship

    Dependents cannot use the Fry Scholarship (see below) in conjunction with the DEA program in most cases. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, “Dependents are not eligible to receive both DEA and Fry Scholarship based on the same event (like a Servicemember dying in the line of duty) unless he or she is a child whose parent died prior to Aug. 1, 2011.”

    The official site adds that in the case where a dependent child lost a veteran parent before Aug. 1, 2011, the dependent may be eligible for both benefits but can only utilize one program at a time. In such cases, combined benefits have a total limit of 81 months of full-time training. DEA and the Fry Scholarship cannot be used at the same time in any case.

    Who Is Eligible For DEA?

    The Department of Veterans Affairs requires DEA applicants to be the son, daughter, or spouse of one of the following as described on the VA official site:

    • A Veteran who died or is permanently and totally disabled as the result of a service-connected disability.
    • A Veteran who died from any cause while such permanent and total service-connected disability was in existence.
    • A Servicemember missing in action or captured in line of duty.
    • A Servicemember “forcibly detained or interned” in the line of duty by a foreign power.
    • A Servicemember who is hospitalized or receiving outpatient treatment for a service connected permanent and total disability and is likely to be discharged from military service for that disability.

    Dependent children applying for DEA benefits must be between the ages of 18 and 26.

    The Marine Gunnery Sergeant John David Fry Scholarship

    The Fry Scholarship provides up to 36 months of Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to qualifying children and surviving spouses of military members who died on duty after Sept. 10, 2001.

    Qualifying dependent children are eligible for this benefit after turning 18. There is a time limit for some Fry Scholarship recipients; according to the VA, dependent children who become eligible before Jan. 1, 2013, are no longer able to use the Fry Scholarship upon reaching their 33rd birthday. This restriction does not apply if the child became eligible on or after Jan. 1, 2013. Surviving spouses do not have a time limit to use this benefit but will lose eligibility for the Fry Scholarship if they remarry.

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    About The AuthorJoe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News

    Written by Team