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If you’re a spouse of a service member and you have higher education pursuits on your mind, you’ve likely wondered what college benefits military spouses may get or even if military spouses can go to college for free.
There’s nothing we like better than being able to deliver good news to military families: Yes – military spouses of active duty service members who qualify for the maximum benefit absolutely can go to college for free! The one big caveat is that for tuition to be completely covered, spouses would need to attend a public college where they qualify for in-state tuition rates or a private university where total tuition costs don’t exceed the annual maximum of just over $26,300.
There are generous college benefits programs for spouses that can cover all of the cost of attending college, but the transfer has to take place during active duty. After service is complete, the opportunity to transfer those benefits is gone. That doesn’t mean the benefits have to be used while your spouse is active, though. In fact, under current rules, you have a full 15 years to use those benefits after your spouse’s service period is complete.
What Benefits do Military Spouses Get?
As the spouse of an active duty service member, you may be able to go to college for free – or at a reduced cost – through the Post-9/11 GI Bill® and Yellow Ribbon Program.
These educational assistance programs, awarded to our nation’s finest who served on or after September 11, 2001, can be transferred to a spouse or dependent.
First things first – to reap any benefits associated with being a military spouse, you must be registered as a spouse through the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System (DEERS). If you’re legally married, you’re automatically enrolled in DEERS.
The college benefits available through the Post-9/11 GI Bill® and Yellow Ribbon Program are available to you as a husband or wife of a service member, provided (1) your spouse meets the requirements to receive the benefits; and (2) your spouse agrees to transfer all or some of their educational benefits to you.
In other words, educational benefits through the Post-9/11 GI Bill® don’t automatically belong to you; but they’re yours as soon as your spouse transfers them to you.
Educational Benefits Available Through the Post-9/11 GI Bill®
As a spouse of an eligible service member, you’ll qualify for up to 36 months (four academic calendar years) of educational benefits that include:
While each qualifying service member qualifies for up to 36 months of educational benefits, you may not have access to the full benefits of the program if your spouse used or plans to use any of the benefits. For example, if your spouse used two years (24 months) of Post-9/11 GI Bill® benefits to earn their degree, only 12 months of remaining benefits can be transferred to you. Your spouse may also choose to split benefits between you and one or more dependent children. In short, the qualifying service member calls the shots when it comes to the transfer of benefits to you, so make sure you’re both on the same page when it comes to using these benefits.
Additional Transferrable Benefits Through the Yellow Ribbon Program
If you’re the spouse of a service member who meets the eligibility requirements of the Post-9/11 GI Bill®, you’ll also be eligible for the Yellow Ribbon Program, which covers the difference in cost of attending private school, out-of-state school, or foreign school and the annual Post-9/11 GI Bill® stipend.
For example, if you choose a private college with a tuition that exceeds the annual stipend allotted for private schools through the Post-9/11 GI Bill®, you may qualify to have the tuition difference covered through the Yellow Ribbon Program.
The Yellow Ribbon Program was originally reserved only for veterans; however, as of August 2022, the program also applies to active duty service members and their dependents. To receive funds through the Yellow Ribbon Program, the school you attend must participate in the program. It’s a partnership between the VA and the participating college or university whereas the school agrees to cover a portion of the additional tuition expenses and the VA covers the rest.
Most participating schools limit the number of Yellow Ribbon Program recipients each year, while a few don’t put any limits on the program and accept all qualifying students into the program who apply.
Post-9/11 GI Bill® Benefits Eligibility Transfer Requirements for Active Duty Service Members
To qualify for Post-9/11 GI Bill® benefits, your spouse must meet at least one of the following requirements:
Then, before your spouse can transfer these benefits to you, they must have:
Your spouse can transfer their Post-9/11 GI Bill® benefits to you as soon as they qualify, and you can use the benefits while your spouse is on active duty or after they’ve left the service.
Interestingly, the benefit transfer policy is not geared to long time career military service members. If your husband or wife has been in for more than 16 years, you as the spouse become ineligible for the benefits transfer.
College Benefits for Spouses of Fallen and Disabled Veterans Through the Survivors’ and Dependents’ Educational Assistance (DEA) and Fry Scholarship Programs
You may be entitled to college benefits even after the death of your spouse. Part of the Post-9/11 GI Bill®, the Survivors’ and Dependents’ Educational Assistance Program (DEA) Program provides benefits to military spouses after service member death or disablement.
To qualify for this program, your spouse must meet one of the following criteria:
Through the DEA program, you’ll receive monthly payments that help defer the cost of attending college, career-training certificate courses, educational and career counseling, apprenticeships, and on-the-job training.
As a spouse of a qualifying veteran, you’re eligible to receive benefits through the DEA for up to 10 years from the date of the veteran’s death or discharge.
If your spouse wasn’t rated as “permanently and totally” more than three years after discharge, you’ll qualify for benefits for 20 years from the effective date. If your spouse died while on active duty, your benefits will end 20 years from the date of death.
As of the 2022 academic year, the monthly DEA payment for full-time students was $1,298 and between $324.50 – $1,026 for part-time students.
If you are a surviving spouse of a service member who died in the line of duty (either while serving on active duty or while not on active duty) after September 10, 2001, or a surviving spouse of a member of the Selected Reserve who died from a service-connected disability after September 10, 2001, you may qualify for up to 36 months of educational benefits through the Fry Scholarship.
The benefits paid through the Fry Scholarship mirror the Post-9/11 GI Bill®. You may qualify for both the DEA program and the Fry Scholarship; however, you won’t be able to use both. It’s up to you to decide which program will work best for your needs.
Military Spouse Assistance Programs to Help Pay for College
College assistance for military spouses doesn’t end with benefits programs. Instead, you may also be eligible for a number of financial assistance programs, grants, and scholarships.
Army Emergency Relief Spouse Education Assistance (AER) Program
The AER program is a private, nonprofit organization that was created to help soldiers and their families experiencing financial emergencies. In addition to the support provided to those struggling financially, the AER also offers the Mrs. Patty Shinseki Spouse Scholarship Program, a need-based scholarship program established to help Army spouses earn their undergraduate degree or other professional certification.
Recipients of this scholarship receive tuition assistance that covers up to four years of full-time study or eight years of part-time study.
Air Force Aid Society
The Air Force Aid Society offers the General Henry H. Arnold Education Grant to qualifying spouses of Air Force and Space Force active duty, Title 10 Reservists, and fallen Airmen. If you qualify for this grant, you’ll receive anywhere from $500 to $4,000 annually, depending on your financial needs.
Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society
The Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society offers grants and interest-free loans to spouses of active duty and retired Sailors and Marines. To qualify for funds through the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, you must:
Grants and loans through this program can range anywhere from $500 to $3,000 per academic year.
Coast Guard Mutual Assistance (CGMA)
The CGMA offers grants and loans to help Coast Guard families afford post-secondary education. As a Coast Guard spouse, you may be eligible for one or more of the following:
My Career Advancement Account Scholarship – MyCAA
The My Career Advancement Account Scholarship is a workforce development program that provides up to $4,000 in financial assistance to eligible military spouses who are pursuing a license, certification, or associate’s degree through an approved, participating school.
You’re eligible for this scholarship if you already have a high school diploma and if your spouse is a service member on active duty (includes National Guard and reserves) and is in one of the following pay grades: E1 – E5; W1 – W2; or O-1 – O-2.
Establish an account with MYSECO — the Spouse Education and Career Opportunities (SECO) Program and you’ll have access to career counseling services and online education and career information, resources, tools, and more.
National Military Family Association
The National Military Family Association offers military spouse scholarships to cover some or all of the costs associated with earning your college degree or professional license/certification. This scholarship may also be used toward the completion of clinical hours and continuing education and toward business and entrepreneurial expenses.
To qualify for any of the scholarships offered through the National Military Family Association, you must be the spouse of a post-9/11 service member who meets one of the following criteria:
You’ll also qualify as a 20/20/20 spouse (married for at least 20 years; spouse must have served in the military for at least 20 years; and the 20 years of marriage overlaps the 20 years of the spouse’s military service).
Modern Military Association of America
The Modern Military Association of America offers a Military Spouse “Donna Johnson Memorial Scholarship.” Two scholarships of between $3,000-$5,000 each are awarded to two military spouses annually.
To qualify for this scholarship, you must be married to an active duty, reserve, guard, retired, medically retired, or fallen service member of the U.S. Armed Forces, and you must be enrolled in an undergraduate or graduate degree program through an accredited, public university where you’re pursuing a STEM degree or certification such as PMP, security certifications, business certifications of Agile, or Six Sigma.