A perennially hot topic is “can my military kid get in-state tuition?” There is a ton of misinformation out there. Some of it is based on ever-changing federal laws, and also the fact that beyond the federal guidelines, every state makes its own rules, and sometimes even different schools within a state have their own rules. Be sure you have the right information before you begin the college search and start deciding which schools you can afford.
I am deeply invested in this question because I have four college-age children. My kids, like many military children, are advantaged over their peers because they have more choices for in-state tuition than their civilian classmates. Many military children qualify for in-state tuition in two states, and they may be eligible for a third state if Mom or Dad moves on Permanent Change of Station (PCS) orders while they are in college.
When talking about residency for the purposes of college tuition, it is important to remember that most students are considered “dependent” students. Their residence is directly tied to their parents’ residences, regardless of the parents’ role in paying for school. Having your child file their own tax return and claiming themselves instead of you claiming them as a dependent will not change this. The criteria to be considered an independent student include military service, marriage, having a child, being legally emancipated prior to age 18, or being a foster child.
State of Parents’ Legal Residence
Military students are (almost) always eligible for in-state tuition in their active duty parent’s state of legal residence, or domicile. The parent must be a legitimate resident of that state. Different state has different requirements. They generally include Leave and Earnings Statements (LES) showing the designated state, plus other indicators of residence such as voter registration, drivers licenses, vehicle registration, etc. If it is a state that taxes income, you’ll almost definitely need to have filed your taxes there.
Now, because states have to be different, there are states that make it really hard for legitimate residents to get in-state tuition. Be sure to understand your school’s specific rules before making any decisions. I’m looking at you, North Carolina.
State of Actual Residence
The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 requires that states offer in-state tuition to military family members who live in the state due to their active duty military member’s service. This means that military kids are eligible for in-state tuition where they are actually living in conjunction with their parent’s job. They do not need to meet any other residency requirements.
If you live in one state and work in another state, this is based upon the state where the family lives, not where the parent’s military job is located. BUT in certain geographic areas that span state lines, schools may have their own special rules, but those rules can not be more restrictive than the federal law.
Once again, state laws may be more liberal. For example, if you live in Maryland but the service member’s job is in Virginia, you may be able to wangle in-state tuition in either Virginia or Maryland. But get that information in writing before making a decision.
Keeping The In-State Rate
Military children have another advantage over their civilian peers: they get to keep their in-state residency, as long as they remain continuously enrolled, even if their parents’ situation changes while they are in school. If a child starts college, and receives in-state tuition there because their parent is stationed there, he or she will continue to receive in-state tuition even if the parent moves away on military orders.
This is also part of the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008. If you search for “in-state,” it takes you directly to the relevant section.
New State? New School
If a military family moves while their student is in college, the student is generally eligible for in-state tuition in the new location without having to meet a time-in-residence requirement. That’s the same part of the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008.
What About The GI Bill?
There is a ton of confusion about what is and is not required when students are using GI Bill benefits. And that confusion is increased because the rules have changed over the years. And there’s another big change starting 1 August 2021.
While these are the “rules,” there are always exceptions. Some schools will give military kids in-state tuition just to be nice, and others have good deals for military kids. Some schools even let you keep that in-state tuition when you’re no longer using the GI Bill. And students using the GI Bill may find that the Yellow Ribbon Program means that a private college ends up being as affordable as a state school. Be sure to thoroughly check out your desired schools to understand their specific policies.
Figuring out how to pay for college is tough. Military children have more options for in-state tuition than their civilian peers, but they don’t get in-state tuition everywhere. Understanding the details before your student selects their college can prevent unpleasant surprises!
More information on the topic of college and how to pay for it: