How to Make Sure Your Kids Don't Overpay for College


It's that time of year: High school seniors are figuring out where they want to go to college next year.

For military families, there are all sorts of extra considerations: how the GI Bill works, how kids with parents overseas will get back and forth, and what states will offer you in-state tuition.

The in-state tuition question is especially tricky because, while there are federal laws, many state university systems or individual colleges have their own rules, which may be better or worse for military families.

While students and parents are evaluating their college financial aid offers, there are a couple of questions that you want to ask.

Is the Student Eligible for In-State Tuition?

Federal law requires that military dependents be charged in-state rates in the state where the service member is stationed.

In addition, many states will offer in-state tuition to the dependent children of their legal residents who live elsewhere on military orders. In that case, you want to ask about documentation requirements. In some cases, it's as simple as providing a leave and earnings statement (LES) showing the state and a tax return showing the student as a dependent. In other cases, they might ask for driver's licenses and voter registration or other proofs of residency. If you haven't been doing a great job of keeping everything in your state of legal residency, you could run into roadblocks.

On top of that, many schools broadly interpret the rules around in-state tuition for students using transferred Post-9/11 GI bill benefits. Some even offer in-state tuition for all military dependents, regardless of where their service member is stationed, or where they are legal residents, or how they are paying for school.

Will the Student Remain Eligible for In-State Tuition?

Once again, there's federal law, and then there are a lot more generous provisions at the state or school level. Federal law says that, if a student is granted in-state tuition on the basis of their parent's duty station, they must continue to be offered in-state tuition even if their parent is transferred elsewhere, unless there is a break in enrollment.

However, if a school is giving you in-state tuition on other grounds, there is no guarantee that it must continue to offer it for subsequent years. You want to ask about situations in which tuition would change to out-of-state. For example, if in-state tuition is based upon the use of transferred GI Bill benefits, what happens if you don't use the GI Bill? Or if in-state tuition is based on military dependency, what happens if the service member separates from the service? What if the student drops below full-time enrollment at any point? Or takes a semester off?

I'd ask these questions via email so you get an email response you can hold on to if there is any discrepancy in the future.

Knowing what you are going to pay is an important part of choosing a college, and the military can make that part a little easier and a little harder at the same time.

Military kids have access to a wide range of exceptions and benefits that often give them more choices than their civilian peers, but they can also run into challenges, especially with school officials who haven't seen their specific situation before.

Knowing which questions to ask is an important part of getting the most accurate and useful answers.

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