Military spouses often face unique challenges when pursuing higher education or career goals due to the demands of supporting their service members. However, there are scholarships and grants specifically designed to help military spouses achieve their dreams despite obstacles like frequent moves, deployments, and periods of single parenthood.
Before diving into specific scholarship and grant programs, it’s crucial to grasp the distinguishing features of these two types of financial aid:
Scholarships are generally merit-based awards that do not need to be repaid. Scholarship selection is based on factors like academic merit, demonstrated leadership skills, or financial need. Scholarship awards may help cover tuition, fees, books, and housing costs or provide a cash stipend for living expenses.
Grants are need-based aid that also does not need to be repaid. Eligibility is typically determined by your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) as calculated through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Grants are used to pay outstanding tuition/fee costs not already covered by other aid like scholarships. The largest grants available to military spouses are discussed later in this post.
Both scholarships and grants can greatly reduce out-of-pocket education costs. The key is finding programs that match your individual attributes, education level, proposed course of study, and career goals.
Federal Financial Aid Programs
Let’s start with the major federal programs available to help military spouses pay for education and training opportunities:
Military Spouse Career Advancement Accounts (MyCAA)
Administered by the Department of Defense (DoD), MyCAA allocates financial resources of up to $4,000 of financial assistance to eligible military spouses seeking associate’s degrees, certificates, licensure, or industry credentials. Funds can be utilized to cover tuition, fees, books, and certification/licensure tests.
To qualify, your spouse must be an E-1 through E-5, W-1 through W-2, or O-1 through O-2, and the service member must be on Title 10 Active Duty orders. MyCAA has additional specific eligibility requirements, so be sure to carefully review the guidelines on their website.
Post-9/11 GI Bill Transfer of Benefits
If your spouse is serving in the armed forces and has served for at least six years, he/she may be eligible to transfer unused Post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits to dependents like a spouse. This allows you to attend college, graduate school, or approved technical/vocational programs using those transferred education benefits.
Federal Pell Grants
Pell Grants are need-based awards of up to $6,495 annually for undergraduate studies. Eligibility is determined by completing the FAFSA and demonstrating high financial need based on EFC. As long as you are enrolled at least half-time in an eligible program, Pell Grants do not need to be repaid.
Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG)
FSEOG is another need-based grant for undergraduate studies awarded by participating schools. Maximum awards vary but are up to $4,000 for eligible military spouses. Like Pell Grants, FSEOG funds do not need to be repaid.
State and Institutional Programs
In addition to the federal options, also research what your state of residency and specific schools offer military spouses:
State Grant and Scholarship Programs
Many states provide additional need-based and merit-based grant aid for residents attending in-state public or private schools. Be sure to check your state’s higher education website for available programs. Some examples are the Military Family Relief Fund in Texas and the Military Family Education Program in North Carolina.
Institutional Military/Spouse Scholarships
Many colleges and universities offer special scholarships just for military-affiliated students and their families. Awards can be a few hundred dollars or full-tuition waivers based on factors like deployment status, financial need, or academic merit. Reach out to your school’s veterans support office to inquire.
Yellow Ribbon Program
This is a provision of the Post-9/11 GI Bill in which approved private and out-of-state public schools voluntarily enter into an agreement with the VA to fund tuition expenses not covered by the GI Bill. No application is needed, but the school must participate to take advantage of additional tuition coverage.
A variety of non-profit organizations, companies and associations award scholarships specifically for military spouses as well. Here are some top options to consider:
National Military Family Association Scholarships
NMFA provides both undergraduate and advanced degree scholarships up to $2,000 each for military spouses and dependents. Consideration is given to academics and community service.
Military Officers Association of America Scholarships
MOAA awards more than 100 spouse, family member, and caregiver scholarships annually, ranging from $1,000 to $10,000 each. Based on academics, leadership, and recommendations.
Military Spouse JD Network Scholarships
If pursuing a law degree, this group annually selects up to 10 recipients for $2,500 scholarships. Prioritizes demonstrated leadership in the legal community or military family support.
American Legion Family Scholarship
Varies annually but most recently offered $2,000 renewable scholarships for military spouses pursuing both undergraduate and graduate degrees. Based on academics, extracurriculars, and community service essay.
PenFed Foundation Military Spouse Scholarship
Awards 30 scholarships annually for $2,000 each toward an accredited program. Consideration is given to career goals, recommendations, and deployment hardships overcome. Open to all career levels.
Tips for Finding and Applying to Scholarships
With so many options available, it’s understandable to feel overwhelmed by the scholarship searching and application process. Here are some tips for maximizing your chances of receiving an award:
- Start early – deadlines are usually 6+ months before the start of the academic year. Having lots of lead time to carefully prepare materials is key.
- Utilize online scholarship databases like Military.com or the Military OneSource Scholarship Search. Input your details to filter programs that specifically match your attributes.
- Highlight your military family experiences, hardships overcome, and education/career goals clearly in essays. Scholarship committees want to feel your commitment and drive.
- Ask professors, employers, or other influencers to write customized letters of recommendation that address the award’s selection criteria.
- Carefully proofread essays and applications before submitting them. Nitpicks like typos and formatting errors create a poor impression.
- Consider repeating applications to programs you were not selected for previously, continuously refining materials each time. Multiple tries often pay off.
- Explore less common donor sources like your employer’s charitable arm or clubs/associations relevant to your field of study. Niche programs receive fewer applicants.
- Celebrate your wins, and if not selected, ask for feedback to improve next time. Every application is a learning experience.
Other Financial Resources
Besides scholarships and grants, military spouses have additional options to help cover education costs:
Employer Tuition Assistance
Many large companies offer tuition reimbursement or educational stipends for employees seeking to advance their skills or education. This can significantly reduce out-of-pocket costs for approved programs.
Income-Driven Repayment Plans
If student loans are unavoidable, opt for extended or income-based repayment options with lower monthly payments tied to your earnings. Plans aim to forgive remaining balances after 20-25 years.
Military Spouse Career Advancement Accounts (MyCAA)
Though capped at $4,000, MyCAA funds can roll over each year up to a lifetime max of $8,000 for technical training, licensing, certification, or associate’s degrees. Pair this with other aid sources.
Military Spouse Preference in Federal Hiring
Veterans Affairs, the Defense Department, and other federal agencies offer non-competitive appointments and special hiring authority benefits for military spouses. Consider careers in government service utilizing the MSP.
Taking Action to Achieve Your Goals
While funding your education as a military spouse presents challenges, this guide should provide invaluable information on the scholarships, grants, and resources available specifically for you. Achieving your career goals is absolutely possible with strategic planning, by making yourself as competitive an applicant as possible for awards, utilizing networking to explore all potential funding streams, and not giving up even when it feels like an uphill battle. I hope military spouses now feel empowered and informed to take action toward their dreams. Please also share this resource widely to help others bring their aspirations to life as well through military service. Wishing you all the very best moving forward in your educational and career journeys.