Obtaining In-State Tuition for Military Spouses and Children

Written by Adam Nyenhuis (’17) – Wake Forest School of Law Veterans Legal Clinic Student Practitioner

The price tag for a college education has skyrocketed over the last several decades, and paying for college has become an increasingly difficult proposition for working families. Accounting for inflation, the average annual cost of attendance at a public, four-year college (including tuition, fees, and room & board) has increased from $7,833 in 1975 to $19,548 in 2015.[1] Without scholarships or need-based aid, this brings the four-year average total cost of a bachelor’s degree to $78,192 at public colleges—and that does not account for interest that could accrue on loans used to finance the education. The cost of a four-year education at a private university more than doubles to an eye-popping total of $175,684.[2]

This is enough of a headache for almost any family, but it can be even worse for military families with college-bound students. The difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition at many public colleges can be stark. In the 2010-2011 academic year, tuition for out-of-state students at four-year colleges cost on average $8,990 more per year than in-state tuition.[3] States vary widely in their requirements to establish “in-state” status for tuition purposes, but dependent students must usually have at least one parent who is a state resident for one full year before the student matriculates in college.[4] If the student receives substantial financial support from outside the state of the student’s college, the student’s claim to in-state tuition could be in jeopardy.[5] This can pose problems that disproportionally affect military families, who move between states far more often than non-military families. Frequent moving makes it more likely that college-aged military children will have not lived in a state long enough to obtain in-state tuition under usual standards, or that their parents will move out of the state in which they attend college, which could endanger their claim to in-state tuition.

Fortunately, for public colleges, a relatively recent federal law provides military families with some relief. The Higher Education Opportunity Act states that public colleges cannot charge military spouses or dependent children more than in-state tuition rates, so long as the service member is on active duty for more than 30 days and is stationed in the state of the relevant public college.[6] There is the additional requirement that the relevant state receive certain types of federal funding, such as Work-Study, Urban and Rural Community Action programs, and Native American programs, to name a few.[7] Therefore, it is important to research whether the relevant state receives the required funding. Because this only applies to service members on active duty, it does not apply to retired service members. However, the law also provides that once a student begins paying the in-state tuition rate, that student will pay that rate for as long as he or she is continually enrolled at the institution. This means that dependents of service members who move—either due to a change in duty station or retirement—will not lose their in-state status. The important point to remember is that even though the Higher Education Opportunity Act has been the law for several years, not all college financial aid workers will be familiar with these standards. For that reason, students and/or their service member parents should be prepared to provide financial aid workers with the law’s requirements to make sure that the student receives the lower in-state rate.  More information on the Higher Education Opportunity Act.

[1] Trends in Higher Education, College Board, https://trends.collegeboard.org/college-pricing/figures-tables/tuition-and-fees-and-room-and-board-over-time-1975-76-2015-16-selected-years  (last visited Oct. 25, 2016).

[2] Id.

[3] In-State vs. Out-of-State Tuition, George Washington Univ., https://heath.gwu.edu/state-vs-out-state-tuition (last visited Oct. 25, 2016).

[4] In-State Tuition and State Residency Requirements, FinAid, http://www.finaid.org/otheraid/stateresidency.phtml (last visited Oct. 25, 2016).

[5] Id.

[6] Higher Education Opportunity Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1015d (2015).

[7] See 42 U.S.C. §§ 2711–2996 (2015).