How Veterans Can Afford Pricey Private University Tuition

About 11 percent of student veterans enroll in private nonprofit schools, according to one study.


Private universities that are members of the Yellow Ribbon Program can help make tuition more affordable for eligible students.

​When Air Force veteran Bridget Burks applied to the private nonprofit Saint Leo University in Florida, the 32-year old had a concern.

“I was nervous about the cost,” says Burks, who was active-duty for four years and a reservist for two.

And it makes sense. Private tuition tends to be expensive, averaging $31,381 in the 2014-2015 academic year, compared with $8,794 for in-state public tuition, according to data collected from ranked colleges in an annual U.S. News survey.

Saint Leo charged more than $20,000 in tuition and fees this year.

Student veterans tend to choose public universities, with just about 11 percent attending private nonprofit schools, according to data collected by Student Veterans of America, a veterans support organization.

But the higher price tag doesn’t mean that private college tuition is out of reach for student veterans.

“I’ve had 100 percent of my tuition covered from the beginning. And I’ve had my living expenses covered,” says Burks, who’s received a combination of funding from the Post-9/11 and Montgomery GI bills and the Yellow Ribbon Program.

As with public school students, veterans enrolled at private universities have access to funds from various GI Bill programs, depending on the length of service, dates served and other factors.

Students can get a sense of how much funding they can expect and how it will apply to tuition with the Department of Veterans Affairs’ GI Bill Comparison Tool.

Those who qualify for 100 percent of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, for example, can use up to $20,235 toward a private college education this year. Plus, they can receive money for books and housing.

Another financial resource for veterans who are eligible for the maximum amount under the Post-9/11 GI Bill is the Yellow Ribbon Program.

Member schools cover tuition and fees that exceed GI Bill funding with the help of a match from the Department of Veterans Affairs. But the extra money may be limited to a set number of veterans and given on a first-come, first-served basis.

For eligible students, the combination of these two programs can mean a full ride, even at a costly private institution. “A veteran can come to Syracuse University as a fully funded student,” says Mike Haynie, vice chancellor for veterans and military affairs at the New York school.

Veterans can also qualify for civilian financial aid if they submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

“We recommend filling out the FAFSA and using that, in combination with benefits, to compensate the costs not met,” says Melanie Monk, a financial aid counselor and VA school certifying official, who helps certify and provide education on military benefits for both veterans and their dependents, at Virginia Wesleyan College.

Students who qualify for federal Pell Grants, which run up to $5,730 depending on financial need, can use that money on top of other funding to pay school expenses, says Monk. Plus, federal loans, which experts typically recommend over private debt, may come in handy down the line.

Outside scholarships that are designated for tuition expenses, on the other hand, may not be as valuable for fully funded veterans since schools must deduct the award amount when they bill Veterans Affairs. “With any scholarship or grant that goes toward tuition, the school subtracts that out from cost of tuition,” says Monk.

But don’t discount them completely, says Mary Frances Causey, director of financial aid at Prescott College. A scholarship may still carry intangible benefits, such as networking opportunities and resume fodder.

Student veterans might hedge the financial risks of dropping out or delaying graduation, which can exhaust their veterans benefits, by enrolling in programs geared toward nontraditional students, say experts.

“We do know that there’s this trepidation toward this traditional four-year institution,” says Haynie of Syracuse. The school is working on implementing veteran-friendly policies, such as priority class registration, to ensure that student veterans can take required classes before exhausting their benefits.

Another option for students who want to try out higher education before committing to a private four-year school is community college, says Haynie.

Veterans can sample the higher education experience more safely on both a financial level and a lifestyle level that way, he says.

For Burks, Saint Leo was the right choice, both academically and financially. She’d had experience with the institution, which offered classes on her Air Force base. “Transitioning back into the real world can be difficult,” she says. “Being at a private institution that supports veterans as strongly as Saint Leo does, they understand that.”

pic3Susannah Snider is an education reporter at U.S. News, covering paying for college and graduate school. You can follow her on Twitter or email her at


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