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4 ways veterans can pay for college

Soldier with mortarboard

Serving your country could be a ticket to an education. To thank current and former military personnel for their service, federal and state governments, private organizations and colleges across the country offer substantial incentives that can help eliminate the cost of college and vocational training. The number of programs available to America's servicemen and women is absolutely huge, far too many to enumerate in one article, but here are four of the largest aid sources for student-veterans.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill

The mother lode of educational benefits, the Post-9/11 GI Bill, covers up to 100 percent of tuition and fee reimbursement at public in-state colleges or up to $19,198.31 per year at private or foreign schools. On top of tuition reimbursement, the bill also provides a monthly housing allowance, a stipend of up to $1,000 per year for books and supplies, and up to a $500 relocation stipend for veterans who are traveling significant distances for school.

To qualify for the full award, veterans must have served at least three years of active duty starting after Sept. 10, 2001, and have received an honorable discharge. Those who were discharged due to service-related disabilities must have served at least 30 continuous days to qualify for the full benefit, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prorated benefits are available for those who served less time.

Even if you're using the Post-9/11 GI Bill funds to pay for education, it's also worthwhile to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which qualifies all students for federal grants, loans and work-study jobs, says William Hubbard, vice president of external affairs for the advocacy nonprofit, Student Veterans of America.

"Just having [the Post-9/11 GI Bill] benefit alone doesn't necessarily equate to being able to afford school," says Hubbard, adding that many student-vets have families and other expenses that extend beyond their own college costs. "... It's important that people don't limit themselves to just the GI Bill because they might think, 'Oh that will cover everything.' Frankly, that's not always the case."

The FAFSA is available at www.fafsa.ed.gov. Veterans who served before 2001 may be eligible for education benefits through the Montgomery GI Bill. The eligibility requirements are laid out on the Department of Veterans Affairs website.

The Yellow Ribbon Program

Even with in-state tuition and fees covered, the Post-9/11 GI Bill falls short of footing out-of-state fees or additional private school costs. That's where the Yellow Ribbon Program comes in. Only available at participating schools, the Yellow Ribbon Program offers funds to fill in the financial gaps.

"One caveat is that the student has to be at the 100 percent entitlement rate established by their years of service," says Marc Barker, military and veteran benefits manager for Colorado State University. That means that you've got to qualify for the full Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, not the prorated ones, to get Yellow Ribbon funds.

Yellow Ribbon funding also varies significantly between schools. Individual institutions determine how much funding they'll offer and whether there is a cap on the amount available per student. Schools also may restrict funding to students at a specific degree level and/or offer a limited number of Yellow Ribbon slots each year. A list of participating institutions and programs is available on the Yellow Ribbon program section of the VA website.

State Aid

Several states also offer their own incentives to service members. States including New York and Illinois provide grants reserved for current and former military personnel, while others, such as Massachusetts, waive tuition for qualified veteran residents who attend in-state public institutions. Several other states waive out-of-state fees for veterans moving across state lines for college. Student Veterans of America provides a list of each state's residency waiver policies on its website.

Eligibility and application requirements for state aid vary significantly between programs, but many require students to file the FAFSA. Your state's higher education board can provide information on what types of aid are available in your area.

School-Sponsored and Private Awards

Your individual institution may also be a generous source of aid for veterans, says Stephen Abel, director of veteran and military programs and services for Rutgers University. Many institutions offer scholarships and grants specifically reserved for enrolled veterans, and a few schools like the University of Connecticut waive tuition entirely for qualified veterans pursuing degrees.

Even if your campus doesn't offer veteran-specific scholarships, the school's financial aid office may be able to direct you to other institutional awards you're eligible for or to outside organizations that offer awards.

"There are a fairly broad range of other scholarships that are outside of the university system that veterans are eligible for," Abel adds.

Organizations ranging from The Pat Tillman Foundation to AMVETS to Student Veterans of America offer private scholarships and grants to active and former military service members and their dependents. The federal government's National Resouces Directory is a good place to start the hunt for private scholarships, but students can also find awards through local and national veterans support organizations and financial aid search sites.

Sources:

AMVETS National Scholarships, AMVETS.com,
http://www.amvets.org/programs/scholarships/

Post-9/11 GI Bill, Education and Training, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs,
http://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill/post911_gibill.asp

Yellow Ribbon Program, Education and Training, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs,
http://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill/yellow_ribbon.asp

Benefits: Education, Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs,
https://www2.illinois.gov/veterans/benefits/Pages/education.aspx

Financial Assistance: Tuition Waivers, Massachusetts Department of Veterans Services,
http://www.mass.gov/veterans/education/financial-assistance/tuition-waivers.html

New York State Programs: Financial Aid for Veterans and Their Families, New York State Higher Education Services Corporation,
http://www.hesc.ny.gov/content.nsf/SFC/New_York_State_Programs

2014 Tillman Military Scholars, Pat Tillman Foundation,
http://pattillmanfoundation.org/2014-tillman-military-scholars-application-now-open/

Raytheon-SVA Scholarship, Student Veterans of America,
http://studentveterans.org/component/content/category/15-scholarships.html

Veterans Affairs and Military Programs, Office of the Provost, University of Connecticut,
http://veterans.uconn.edu/benefits/waiver/