Outside of applying to college and waiting for an admission decision, paying for your education may be your greatest concern. Even though many veterans will be able to access their VA benefits, depending on which college you attend, all of your expenses might not be covered.
Every veteran, every student, has a unique set of financial circumstances and considerations. Like choosing a right fit college, there is no one-size-fits-all financial solution. You'll need to plan on doing some research. Like almost everything else you've encountered along the higher education pathway, a little thoughtful planning upfront can save you a lot of headache later on.
We won't mislead you: Just as with the admissions application process, there is a lot that you need to keep track of, deadlines to meet, and information you need to understand so that you can maximize your benefits.
As you begin to consider the cost of college seriously, you may discover you actually have more options than you had thought possible at first; that is, you may realize that schools which seemed really expensive are actually much more affordable than you thought.
The one myth important to address from the outset is that many service members and veterans believe a private school education will create a much larger financial burden for them as compared to an in-state public institution. While it is certainly true your GI bill benefits will likely fully cover in-state tuition, don't discount a private school education if that is what you're (really) interested in.
Here is an example:
Imagine our hypothetical veteran is interested in attending Columbia University. At over $46,000 a year, Columbia looks like an expensive option. However, in actuality, student veterans are almost entirely covered at Columbia University. Our hypothetical student veteran would be able to apply his or her post-9/11 GI bill benefits to cover nearly half of the annual tuition.* Meanwhile, the university would chip in another $10,000 through its Yellow Ribbon program and the VA would match that grant. The Yellow Ribbon Program allows colleges and universities to voluntarily enter into an agreement with the VA to fund tuition expenses that exceed either the annual maximum cap for private institutions or the resident tuition and fees for a public institution. The institution can contribute up to 50% of those expenses and the VA will match the same amount as the institution. As a result, our student veteran is only responsible for $2,500 a year. The balance can often be covered with a Federal Pell Grant.
*Columbia University's School of General Studies assesses tuition at a per point charge. Do your research to determine if tuition is calculated per point or is a flat rate of tuition up until a certain amount of credits.
Determine if your preferred school participates in the Yellow Ribbon Program, as that can also offset some of the costs. You can find information about whether a college or university participates in Yellow Ribbon by visiting the Attaining Higher Education interactive map or the VA’s Yellow Ribbon website.
Most have only a certain number of Yellow Ribbon slots, so you will want to check with your preferred institution to understand the requirements and policies to qualify. You can find more information on Yellow Ribbon eligibility by visiting the VA’s Yellow Ribbon website. Most universities that do not belong to Yellow Ribbon will explain how they cover expenses either through providing veterans in-state tuition benefits or by other means.
Bottom line is this: Don't let the “retail” sticker price of a private college shock or fool you. There are often ways to manage your finances so that you do not end up with excessive debt if attending a private institution is on your radar. Make sure to do your research before you rule anything out – so you know up front what the actual cost will be.