5 Tips Surviving Military Families Need to Know as They Prepare for College

Author: Ashlynne Haycock

In 2002, I lost my dad while he was training to deploy to Iraq. I was 10 years old. College was the last thing on my mind, and it was not high on my mother's priority list either.

Years later, as I opened the mailbox and pulled out “the big envelope” from American University, I knew my dad would have been obnoxiously proud. I have no doubt he would have sported an AU Eagles sweatshirt everywhere.

Young women celebrate graduation

But, I was so excited to attend that the looming tuition seemed unimportant — until I got a bill in the mail for the first $25,000 semester. There was the hard truth; I would have to find the money to attend school. But where was this money going to come from?

Fast forward four years and $200,000 later, and I graduated on time and with no debt. Having lived and learned through those four years of earning an expensive undergraduate degree, and seeing how finances negatively impacted my GPA, I learned a lot that I wish my mom and I had known all those years ago to help guide us through the process.

1. There is assistance for college prep.

Eknowledge provides free SAT and ACT prep for surviving families; all you have to pay is shipping. Folds of Honor offers the Children's Fund scholarship that pays for tutoring. Gratitude Initiative offers a comprehensive online college prep course. Children of Fallen Patriot Foundation will pay the SAT and ACT test application fees and college application fees. They will even buy your child a computer before their freshman year of college.

2. Compare schools side by side.

The Department of Veterans Affairs launched the GI Bill comparison tool a few years back. It gives you a breakdown of how truly veteran friendly a school is. It shows you how much the GI Bill pays at that school, how many students are using the GI Bill (this does include Fry), what the Basic Housing Allowance at the school will be and it allows you to compare the schools your children are considering.

3. Try to spread benefits out.

Did you know that 46 states offer tuition waivers? Neither did I when I was 18. Your kids could potentially save their VA education benefits for graduate school and use a state tuition waiver for undergraduate. There are so many combinations of benefits, and it’s different for everyone. TAPS Education Services can help you and your children create a comprehensive benefit plan to pay for all of their educational goals.

4. Always apply for FAFSA.

FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This is free money based on your income. A lot of surviving families will be eligible for Pell Grants, which is money given by the federal government to lower-income families for college. If your child isn’t eligible for a Pell Grant, and your child’s parent died due to service in Iraq or Afghanistan, they may be eligible for an Iraq and Afghanistan Pell Grant. It’s the exact same amount as a regular Pell Grant ($5,920) and available to families who make too much to be eligible for the regular Pell Grant. It costs nothing to fill out FAFSA; it only takes an hour of your time, and it could potentially provide additional free money for college tuition, room and board or books. 

5. Start applying for scholarships early.

Just because kids can’t apply for VA education benefits until they’re 18 years old or have graduated from high school doesn’t mean they must wait to apply for scholarships. Scholarship season is from Jan. 1 to April 1. If you aren’t applying during that time, you are losing out on a lot of easy money. One of the biggest mistakes I see is parents contacting me the day their kid gets to campus asking what they need to do to pay for it. At that point, you’ve missed virtually every deadline. You’ve missed FAFSA money and all of the scholarship deadlines, and you may start seeing VA money around December if you are lucky.

So, what do you do now?

Start by checking out the TAPS Education Portal to give you an idea of just how much you are eligible for. You also can connect with a TAPS Education Services Coordinator who will go through the process with you and help you better understand what you may be eligible for or will create a benefit plan. Email education@taps.org or call 800-959-TAPS (8277) and ask for Education Services. In the past four years, the Education Services department has assisted more than 2,500 survivors to access $170 million in education benefits.

From the pen of…
Ashlynne Haycock is currently the manager for Education Support Services for TAPS. She was recently invited to serve on the VA’s Advisory Committee on Education (VACOE). She is the surviving daughter of Army Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey Haycock, who died in the line of duty in 2002, and Air Force veteran Nichole Haycock, who died by suicide in 2011. She graduated from American University with a bachelor's degree in Political Science in 2013. While at American University she was one of the first recipients of the Marine Gunnery Sgt. John Fry Scholarship.