Reality has set in. There’s no turning back. The kids are going off to college.
And someone has to pay for it.
It all seemed like a distant dream last fall when we signed up for campus tours.
“Sure, we can visit that private university that costs $68,000 per year,” we said, believing that something would intervene — financial aid, scholarships, public outcry, a Martian invasion, the Tooth Fairy — to make college affordable.
Back then, high school graduation was so far off, we didn’t need to think it all through. Somehow, it would all work out.
In the meantime, college counselors encouraged our kids to explore their educational dreams regardless of the price, as if military families had unlimited budgets. And as if taking out massive student loans wouldn’t translate into our kids living in our basements until they reach their 30s.
Now, here we are in April. The month when high school seniors sort through their acceptance letters, revisit colleges, and make “their choice.”
And we, the parents, are hyperventilating into paper bags because we know the bills are coming.
But put down those smelling salts, because the GI Bill and the Yellow Ribbon Program can make college affordable for military families.
Legend has it that one night at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., American Legion commander Harry Colmery scribbled an idea on a napkin for military veterans returning from WWII to receive federal unemployment pay, educational benefits, and loans to buy property to help them adjust after service. That idea eventually became the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, better known as the GI Bill of Rights, which was signed into law by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on June 22, 1944.
The Bill saw many revisions over the decades, most notably the 1984 Montgomery GI Bill which added an opt-in program for new recruits, and the 2008 Post 9/11 GI Bill which offered veterans serving on or after Sept. 11, 2001, the ability to transfer unused educational benefits to family members. This expansion also added the Yellow Ribbon Program which allows schools to voluntarily “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 percent of those expenses and VA will match the same amount as the institution.” (See https://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill/yellow_ribbon/yellow_ribbon_info_schools.asp.)
And finally, the Harry W. Colmery (the napkin scribbler) Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017, known as the “Forever GI Bill,” which eliminates the 15-year limit on using benefits for recent enlistees, offers extra money for those pursuing STEM degrees, and includes reservists, surviving dependents, and Purple Heart recipients.
Today, the GI Bill covers about $22,800 annual tuition plus housing and books for four years. This amount is based on average in-state tuition, but it doesn’t cover all costs at many pricey universities today, which is why the Yellow Ribbon Program is used as a supplement.
When our first child, Hayden was searching for colleges back in 2014, we limited his search to in-state schools and schools that participated in the Yellow Ribbon Program. By searching the state-by-state list of Yellow Ribbon participating schools on the VA website (https://www.benefits.va.gov/GIBILL/yellow_ribbon/yrp_list_2017.asp), Hayden compiled a long list of schools that we could afford using most of my husband’s transferred GI Bill benefits.
Thanks to these programs, Hayden will graduate from a top-notch research institution in May with a well-paid job as a software engineer, no significant student loans, and no plans to live in our basement until his 30s. We considered telling our second child, Anna, that that she was limited to what was in the change jar on the kitchen counter, but luckily, she was offered a competitive financial aid package from her university. And as for Lilly, our high school senior who has her heart set on another leafy upstate private college, we still have enough GI Bill benefits left to cover one year of tuition, housing and books.
After that, we may need those smelling salts.