How Children of Veterans Can Go to College for Free

Military families have more financial aid opportunities than the general public — if you plan ahead.
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Written by Kat Tretina
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Edited by Cecilia Clark
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The 1.6 million children of U.S. military members face hurdles like frequent moves and concern for a parent who is or could be deployed for active duty. As they grow and prepare to build a life, they meet a familiar challenge that young adults across the country face — figuring out how to pay for college.

Fortunately, there are ample financial aid options to help the children of veterans.

Federal, state and local governments, universities and non-profit organizations offer scholarships and grant programs intended for military service members, veterans, and their families.

"Military families absolutely have more financial aid opportunities than the general public," says Doug Nordman, author and founder of The Military Guide, a blog for military members. "The challenge is learning about them and exerting the advance planning to use them.”

Here are six financial aid sources for children of military service members and veterans.

1. Department of Veterans Affairs

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) offers children of service members and veterans several education aid opportunities.

Transfer post-9/11 GI Bill benefits

If you’re on active duty or in the Selective Reserve you may be able to pass along unused Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to your child.

During active duty, you can fill out a Transfer of Education Benefits form to request to shift up to 36 up months of remaining education benefits to a dependent.

Cathy Mueller, executive director with Mapping Your Future, a non-profit organization that helps students navigate higher education and student loans, says it's critical that the service member carefully reviews the guidelines and timing for transferring benefits.

"While the process is not complex, veterans should be aware there are some guidelines on qualifying expenses, the amounts and the time period in which the funds must be used," she says.

For example, you must serve 10 years. This can be time already served or six years of completed service with an agreement to serve four more years.

Benefits include tuition, housing, books and supplies and fees for testing and certifications. For public institutions, the GI Bill can take care of net tuition and mandatory fees, while children attending private institutions can receive up to $27,120 in aid.

This aid can be a helpful resource when the average annual cost of college for public and private institutions was $9,700 and $38,800, respectively as of the 2021-22 academic year according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Children can take advantage of these benefits whether you’re active or in-active. To be eligible for this aid, children must:

  • Have either turned 18 or have a high school diploma or equivalent certificate. 

  • Use the benefits before they turn 26. 

  • Be enrolled in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System. can provide more information about eligibility and benefit amounts for tuition and fees, housing, and supplies.

Marine Gunnery Sergeant John David Fry Scholarship

The Fry Scholarship is for children of service members who, after September 11, 2011, either died in the line of duty or, or were members of the Selected Reserve and died from a service-related disability.

The scholarship provides funding for tuition, housing and books; if the student attends a public institution, the scholarship will cover up to the full net cost of tuition and fees. At private schools, the maximum limit for the scholarship is $27,120.

Survivors’ and Dependents’ Educational Assistance

Survivors' and Dependents' Education Assistance (DEA), or Chapter 35, provides financial aid to children and spouses of service members who have died, been captured, are missing or have service-related disabilities.

The program gives qualifying students a monthly payment to pay for college, career-training courses or apprenticeship programs. Depending on what program you choose, you could receive up to $1,488 per month.

2. Federal financial aid programs

Some students may overlook federal financial aid, but submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) could open up more benefits.

In addition to federal student loans, the FAFSA can unlock need-based grants like the Pell Grant, which can provide up to $7,395 per year that doesn’t need to be repaid. Submitting the FAFSA is also necessary to qualify for some scholarships.

The Pell Grant is available to all students who qualify for federal aid, but the Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant is a federal grant specifically for the children of military veterans.

Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants

The Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant is a federal program for those whose parent or guardian was a member of the military and died during military service in Iraq or Afghanistan afterSeptember 11, 2001.

Students can qualify if they aren't eligible for a Pell Grant based on their expected family contribution and were under the age of 24 or enrolled in college at least part-time at the time of their parent's death.

The award is equal to the maximum Pell Grant amount: $7,395.

3. Financial aid from branch support agencies

Each branch of the military has a support agency that provides resources to veterans and their families. Through these agencies, children of service members may qualify for aid.

Army Emergency Relief

Army Emergency Relief offers the Retired Maj. Gen. James Ursano Scholarship Program. This is a needs-based scholarship for qualifying students pursuing their first undergraduate degree.

Air & Space Forces Association

The Air & Space Forces Association manages 11 scholarship programs for airmen, their spouses and their children. Awards range from $1,000 to $10,000.

Coast Guard Foundation

The Coast Guard Foundation operates the Fallen Heroes Scholarship. It is for the children of Coast Guard service members who lost their lives during a service-related operation. Award amounts vary.

National Guard Association of the United States

The National Guard Association of the United States provides three scholarship programs that the children and spouses of service members can take advantage of. One offers $5,000, while another, the USAA Guardian Scholarship Fund, provides $6,250 annually to children of a National Guardsman who died on active duty after September 11, 2001.

Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society

Children of active duty, retired or deceased Navy or Marine service members can qualify for NMCRS scholarships ranging from $500 to $3,000. The scholarships are based on financial need as determined by the FAFSA, and the award is paid directly to the student's school.

4. State tuition waivers for military children

Children of military service members may be eligible for tuition benefits from their state. In most states, children of service members can qualify for in-state tuition rates even if they're new to the state. Some states offer more aid with tuition waivers.

Tuition waiver programs reduce or eliminate tuition costs at select schools for qualifying students. Many — but not all — states have tuition waiver programs. You can see if your state has one by contacting your state VA office.

For example, Arkansas waives tuition, fees and room and board at any public or private college or university for children of service members who were killed or missing in action, prisoners of war or those who are permanently disabled due to their service.

5. Institutional aid

Colleges can also be a source of financial aid for children of service members.

"As a parent, I strongly recommend the university’s programs," said Nordman. "Some of the smaller scholarships — from alumni and professional organizations — are practically begging for applicants. Students can score $1,000 to $5000 with only an application and an essay.”

For example, North Carolina State University offers the James Jones VFW Post 10,001 Scholarship to veterans’ children or grandchildren who display elevated academic achievement and financial need.

Award availability and amounts vary by school, so check with your college's financial aid office to see available aid.

6. Third-party scholarships

Non-profit organizations and private corporations offer financial assistance to service members, veterans and their families.

There are many scholarships available; search for awards with the following databases:

  • Department of Defense Scholarships.

  • Military OneSource.

  • Fisher House Foundation.


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