Financial Aid for Military Spouses

Thrift Savings Plan (Stock Photo)

Do you ever wish that college was free for military spouses like you? That the MyCAA program was open to everyone and the post-9/11 GI Bill covered every dime of your education? And that scholarship money that would include books, fees and a shiny Lincoln Town Car to drop you off in front of your classes?

We do. But when we are done wishing, we realize that some of our education costs simply must come from somewhere else. (Yes, we are talking about student loans.)

Not many schools have financial aid offices that will hold your hand through the process. Even those that do, don’t always understand the specific financial constraints of a military family.

No problem there -- we’ve everything you need to know about financial aid and student loans all in one place.

This is debt, not free money.

First of all, we’d be lying if we said that we thought taking out a bulk of loans was a great idea for military spouses. So start by making sure you ask your school directly about any scholarship or funding opportunities they offer for military families.

With or without those scholarships, loans may still be the only way for you to make ends meet while advancing your degree.

Before you sign your life away to the bank, take a few minutes to ask yourself some questions:

  1. Am I confident this is the degree I want?
  2. Am I confident this is the place I want to get that degree?
  3. Am I confident that I can pay off these loans with the job I would get with this degree?

If you feel even a speck of doubt on any of these questions, take some time to think before committing. Student loan debt plagues graduates for up to 30 years after graduation and the average amount owed is $31,172.

Just like your education will stay with you for the rest of your life, it may feel like that student loan debt will too. It’s not worth doing if you’re not a hundred percent sure it’s just right for you, so think long and hard about the whys and the wheres.

Which forms will I need?

If you find yourself answering all those questions with a resounding yes, it’s time to fill out your FAFSA online.

The FAFSA -- the Free Application for Federal Student Aid -- will open the doors to your eligibility for both public and private loans.

Because you’ll have to fill it out every single year you’re in school, you will become an expert at filling out this form. But before it’s old hat, it can be a little daunting.

As soon as you can file your FAFSA, do so. FAFSAs cannot be filed before Jan. 1 of the year you attend school, but if you want the most money available, you need to get your application in immediately after that Jan. 1 deadline. So take a look at the form now so you will know what information you will need.

Tip: you’ll need to file your taxes early, too. They’ll require a copy with your application.

What if I don’t need financial aid?

Even if you don’t think you’re going to need financial aid, fill out the FAFSA form. Some military spouses report that their tuition went up unexpectedly and they couldn’t quite meet the difference. You want to be covered just in case.

Plus, your loan amounts may include some cost-of-living coverage, which could be a real benefit to your family -- as long as you know you can pay it off.

You might not need the full award you were granted. You don’t have to take it and you don’t have to spend it, but it is good to have the option available before you need it.

Do I need a Pell Grant or a Stafford Loan?

The most common types of need-based federal student loans are Pell grants and Stafford loans. While Pell grants are only for undergraduates, Staffords are for both undergraduate education and graduate education.

Once you have sent in your FAFSA, your financial aid office will let you know what your award is and how that award will be disbursed -- i.e., if you’re getting Pell grants or Staffords (either subsidized or unsubsidized).

These loans will be underwritten by a bank, so before you sign anything, contact your own banking institution to see what they offer. USAA has a wealth of information and opportunities for educational grants and is a great place to go for a crash course in taking out and repaying your education loans.

Note: Depending on your age and financial history, you might be asked to have a parent or spouse co-sign your loans with you. Always make sure your spouse is on board with your education plans!

What else is available for non-traditional learners?

A “non-traditional learner” is higher education lingo for people who are either going back to school after a break or who are starting college at a time other than straight out of high school.

As a military spouse or partner, you are almost certainly considered a non-traditional learner.

In the last 20 years, most schools have done a lot to welcome and support this particular demographic, so make sure you inquire what your school has to offer you specifically.

Generally, there are a few scholarships you can apply for -- ones directed toward military families, non-traditional learners or students in your field -- so make sure to ask.

If you are determined to return to school, there are many ways to pay. Think about other options for paying for school, too. Fully investigate your military benefits. Find a job that can help pay for school. Look into state education benefits and think about scholarship awards.

Persisting through the maze of financial aid may seem daunting, but it is the path that leads to a completed degree.

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