Education Benefits for Military Spouses

Education Benefits for Military Spouses - featured image

A spouse of active-duty military personnel and veterans faces challenges that limit their access to higher education opportunities! Fortunately, the education benefits for military spouses remove these barriers and, thus, enable them to pursue their personal and professional goals, particularly in relation to earning postsecondary credentials. Indeed, every military spouse should be well-informed about the education benefits that the United States government and nonprofit agencies offer for their academic advancement – and it starts here!

Education Benefits for Military Spouses - fact

History of Education Benefits for Military Spouses

The history of education benefits for military service members and veterans started with the Rehabilitation Act of 1919. But it was the 1944 Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, known popularly as the G.I. Bill, that set the stage for more comprehensive benefits for veterans and, eventually, their spouses and dependents. 

Of the numerous times that the G.I. Bill has been amended, it was the 1956 Orphans Educational Assistance Act that changed the game for military spouses. The act expanded the eligibility for education benefits to spouses and widows of disabled servicemen and deceased veterans. 

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Nowadays, the Post-9/11 GI Bill is the most comprehensive law regarding education benefits provided to eligible spouses of active-duty servicemen and veterans. But military spouses must also look beyond the Forever G.I. Bill if they want the best answer to the oft-repeated question, “Do military spouses get free college?”

Contemporary Challenges Faced by Military Spouses and Their Families Addressed by Education Benefits

The lives of military spouses and their children can be filled with more uncertainty than civilian families face! Such greater uncertainty comes from a wide range of factors that hinder military spouses from earning college degrees and professional certifications. Here, we take a look at these unique challenges and the ways that military-specific education benefits can address them.

Frequent Relocations

Military families are familiar with frequent relocations caused by deployments to different duty stations. Being able to maintain continuity in your studies as a military spouse becomes more challenging with every relocation. 

This is where the transferability of education benefits in the G.I. Bill comes into the picture! As a military spouse, you can request for transfer of education benefits so that you can continue your academic pursuits regardless of your location.

Uncertain Deployment Schedules

Military spouses can find it challenging to commit to in-person, on-campus academic programs because of the unpredictability of deployment schedules. There’s also the matter of planning and making the move that gets in the way of academic preparations. 

Fortunately, online academic programs with their low-residency to fully online courses and flexible schedules allow military spouses to maintain their academics while dealing with uncertain deployment schedules. Many military education benefits programs cover online programs, such as in Yellow Ribbon online schools like National University. 

Financial Strain

Military families often deal with the financial strain that comes with deployments, among other unique challenges of military life. Education becomes less of a priority for many families, particularly when the costs of paying for application, transfer credit, and official transcripts fees become too burdensome. 

Education benefits, such as the MyCAA program, make it easier for military spouses to deal with the financial strain. Many of these education benefits don’t require repayment, such as scholarships and grants, and even the loans, are offered at low to zero interest. 

Of course, your academic pursuits will be negatively impacted if you’re experiencing significant issues with childcare, social isolation, and limited career opportunities. Again, you should take advantage of military benefits that address these issues, such as financial assistance and support services for childcare, career counseling services, and community support groups.

Education Benefits for Military Spouses

We want to emphasize that for military spouses to enjoy free college education – or at least, with as low out-of-pocket costs as possible – it’s crucial to maximize the education benefits featured here. You should consider applying to as many programs as possible, such as federal and state programs as well as charitable organization-sponsored programs.

Post 9/11 GI Bill Transferability

Eligible military members and veterans can transfer their unused education benefits to their spouses. While up to 48 months of education benefits can be granted by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) – excluding the Veteran Readiness and Employment (VR&E) benefits – many applicants are only qualified for up to 36 months. 

If the service member used 12 months of their 36-month education benefits, for example, only 24 months can be transferred to your account. If they haven’t used any, then you can have everything transferred for your benefit. 

Note that only active-duty military personnel and Selected Reserve members can transfer education benefits and only when they meet all these criteria: 

  • Completed at least six years of service on the date of the approved request
  • Agreed to serve four additional years of service in exchange for the benefits transfer and 
  • Enrolled their spouse in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System (DEERS)

Note 1: Service members who received a Purple Heart don’t have to meet the six-year service requirement but must transfer their benefits to their spouses while on active duty. 

Note 2: At least one month of education benefits must be transferred to a military spouse while the service member is on active duty (i.e., DEERS enrollment). Benefits can be added and subtracted after discharge; benefits cannot be transferred after discharge. 

Military spouses can get the following education benefits:

  • Tuition and fees (Maximum benefits result in full coverage for in-state tuition and fees at public institutions) 
  • Housing allowance (Waived if the service member is still on active duty) 
  • Books and supplies allowance 
  • Relocation expenses 

The rates change every year, so it’s best to check. The Department of Defense (DOD) approves the transfer request. 

You, the military spouse, can immediately use the education benefits once transferred. If the service member separated from the military before January 1, 2013, there’s a 15-year time limit for the use of benefits. If the separation from active duty occurred on or after January 1, 2013, there’s no time limit.

Yellow Ribbon Program

The Yellow Ribbon Program provides veterans with financial assistance in pursuing college degrees at private schools, out-of-state institutions, and graduate schools, as well as at foreign schools where the tuition and fees exceed the maximum amount allowed under the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill. Note that military spouses can only apply for the education benefits under said program at partner colleges and institutions.

For a military spouse to be eligible under the Yellow Ribbon Program, you must be using the transferred education benefits of an active-duty service member with at least 36 months on their service record. You, the military spouse, must also qualify for the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill for the maximum amount. 

Under the program, the Yellow Ribbon School contributes a specific amount, and the VA matches it. The combined funds will be used toward payment of the excess amount between the actual tuition and fees of the Yellow Ribbon school and the Forever G.I. Bill’s maximum tuition benefit and other financial aid. In some cases, it can cover 100% of the tuition and mandatory fees, but this isn’t always the case. 

Since Yellow Ribbon schools set a maximum number of students for every program period, interested military spouses must act quickly. The basic steps in applying are: 

  • Apply for Post-9/11 benefits
  • Secure your Certificate of Eligibility (COE) if you are qualified, and present it to the Yellow Ribbon school you’re applying to 
  • Wait for the school’s decision

If you’ve been accepted into the program in the current academic year, you should still be in it in the succeeding academic year, provided that you meet certain criteria. These are satisfactory academic progress, continuous enrollment, and money left in your education benefits.

Survivors’ and Dependents’ Education Assistance Program

The VA also administers the Survivors’ and Dependents’ Educational Assistance (or DEA) Program under Chapter 35 of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill. The education benefits can be granted to military spouses of service members or veterans who meet just one of these eligibility requirements: 

  • Permanent or total disability as a result of service-connected disability 
  • Admitted to the hospital or receiving outpatient treatment for permanent or total disability as a result of service-connected disability with likely discharge 
  • Missing in action or became a prisoner of war (captured by hostile force) for more than 90 days 
  • Forcibly detained in the line of active duty by a foreign entity for more than 90 days
  • Died in the line of duty 
  • Died as a result of service-connected disability 

You, a military spouse, must meet just one of these eligibility criteria: 

  • You are at least 18 years old
  • You have completed secondary education or high school 

You can use your education benefits at any time (i.e., without time limits) if only one of these things is true: 

  • The qualifying event occurred on or after August 1, 2023, or 
  • You turned 18 years old; or 
  • You completed secondary education on or after August 1, 2023

Time and age limits apply when all these circumstances are true: 

  • If the qualifying event happened before August 1, 2023, and 
  • You turned 18 years old, and
  • You completed secondary education before August 1, 2023

The time limit ranges between 10 and 20 years.  

If you qualify as a military spouse, you will get monthly payments to cover the costs of attending undergraduate and graduate degree programs, apprenticeships, career training certificate courses, and on-the-job training. Depending on when you started school, you can receive between 45 months (before August 1, 2018) and 36 months (on or after August 1, 2018).

Marine GySgt John D. Fry Scholarship Program

The Fry Scholarship program provides education benefits for the surviving spouses and children of service members who were: 

  • Members of the Armed Forces who died in the line of duty while on active duty on or after September 11, 2001, or 
  • Members of the Armed Forces who died in the line of duty without being on active duty also on or after September 11, 2001, or
  • Members of the Selected Reserve whose death was a result of a  service-connected disability that occurred on or after September 11, 2001

Note that, as a qualified military spouse, you can only choose one program – either the DEA or the Fry scholarship. Once you choose one program, you cannot transfer to the other program. You may, however, still receive Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) payments simultaneously with Fry scholarship payments. 

If you qualify, you can use the Fry education benefits for 15 years from the death anniversary of your deceased spouse or until you remarry. You can be qualified for up to 36 months of money for tuition and mandatory fees, housing, and books and supplies. You may also receive full tuition coverage if you’re enrolled in public institutions, but it isn’t guaranteed.

Military Spouse Career Advancement Accounts (MyCAA)

The DOD administers the Military Spouse Career Advancement Accounts (MyCAA) program under its Spouse Education and Career Opportunities (SECO) program. Eligible military spouses can get up to $4,000 in financial assistance they can use in approved colleges and universities. There’s a $2,000 annual fiscal year cap, but waivers are available in case applicable education costs exceed $2,000 but only up to the maximum $4,000 education benefit. 

You can qualify if you fall into one of these categories: 

  • You’re the spouse of a service member on active duty within specified pay grades (i.e., E-1 to E-6, W-1 to W-2, and O-1 to O-3), and you have completed secondary education, and you can request tuition assistance while said service member is on Title 10 orders; or
  • You’re the spouse of a National Guard and Reserves member or a Coast Guard member in the same pay grades or 
  • You have been approved for a MyCAA scholarship with an approved education and training plan, even if your military sponsor has been promoted.

The MyCAA scholarship can only be used for the payment of tuition costs in associate degree programs, costs of securing a certification, license, or certificate from accredited institutions, and costs of testing for employment opportunities. 

Furthermore. be sure to look into the official charitable organizations of the Armed Forces branches:

  • Army Emergency Relief Fund (Mrs. Patty Shinseki Spouse Scholarship Program) 
  • Air Force Aid Society (General Henry H. Arnold Education Grant Program, Columbia Southern University Scholarship Opportunity, and Supplemental Education Loan Program) 
  • Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society ( Education Assistance Program)
  • Coast Guard Foundation (Spouse Education Grant and Delta Dental Education Grants) 
  • Coast Guard Mutual Assistance (Education Loans and Supplemental Education Grant)

Frequently Asked Questions

Are there state-specific education benefits for military spouses?

Yes, many states offer generous education benefits for military spouses, including scholarships and grants, in-state tuition rates, and tuition discounts. Be sure to check your state’s specific eligibility criteria and application requirements for more information. 

For example, South Dakota offers free tuition and non-payment for mandatory fees at state-sponsored schools, including postsecondary vocational and technical schools for spouses of veterans who’ve been declared as missing in action (MIA) or prisoners of war (POW). Under the Texas Hazlewood Act Tuition Exemption Benefit for Spouses and Dependent Children, spouses of eligible veterans can apply for a tuition waiver at state-supported colleges and universities; up to 150 credit hours can be covered by tuition exemption.

Are education benefits for military spouses applicable to online courses?

Yes, many types of education benefits for military spouses can be applied in online academic programs and online courses. Since many brick-and-mortar universities offer online programs or have affiliated online colleges, such as Purdue Global and Penn State World Campus, applying G.I. Bill and other military education benefits have become more common.

Can military spouses use their education benefits for vocational-technical or graduate-level programs?

Yes, but it’s crucial to check with the tech-voc program or graduate program you’re planning on applying to for more details since the eligibility requirements vary between programs. Most education benefits apply to undergraduate-level programs, tech-voc programs, and professional certification programs.

Can military spouses use their education benefits while stationed overseas?

Yes, but not all education benefits can be used for academic pursuits in foreign countries. Examples of spouse tuition assistance programs for which military spouses accompanying their service members on foreign deployments are qualified are the Hap Arnold Grant and the General George S. Brown Grant.

What are the support services and resources that military spouses can tap into?

Military spouses looking for education-related and non-education-related resources can look into the following websites: 

  • Military OneSource, a Department of Defense program where military spouses can access reliable information about education benefits, including financial assistance and education counseling services 
  • Spouse Education and Career Opportunities (SECO), also a Department of Defense program offering education and career counseling services 
  • Department of Veterans Affairs, which provides comprehensive information about veterans’ rights, including education benefits for their spouses 
  • Nonprofit organizations with military-specific services, such as the Military Family Advisory Network, National Military Family Association, and Blue Star Families
  • Colleges and universities with financial aid offices or military support services

Sources: 

MyNavyHR
US Department of Veterans Affairs
US Department of Defense 
Army Emergency Relief Fund
Air Force Aid Society
Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society
Coast Guard Foundation
Coast Guard Mutual Assistance
Military One Source