By 1st Lt. John M. Cooper, 509th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
/ Published March 21, 2013
WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. --
With the suspension of the Tuition Assistance program, Airmen across the service have been left wondering the same question - "How am I going to pay for my education?"
The Whiteman Education Center's answer - "Come see us."
"People that had approved TAs are going to be honored," said Darla Rush, 509th Force Support Squadron force development flight chief. "But now, they're at the point where they're wondering 'How am I going to fund it in the future? How am I going to continue to go to school?'"
Though one major source of financial aid is no longer an option for Airmen, the good news is that numerous others, though perhaps less well-known, are available, and can help fully fund a quality education. The counselors at the Education Center are ready and able to help Airmen make the most of these opportunities.
The first thing that education center specialists tell Airmen about is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, which determines how much federal aid - most notably, Pell grants - an individual is eligible to receive.
"We explain to them the criteria the federal government is looking for," said Mark Carter, 509th FSS education specialist. "Are you married? Do you have children? Are you the only breadwinner? We explain to them, if they fall in that category, the likelihood of getting a full Pell, which is $5,500 an academic year, is great."
When it comes to filling out the FAFSA, Carter also encouraged Airmen to stay away from websites that supposedly help individuals complete the form, as most of them charge service fees. Instead, Airmen should visit the Education Center, where counselors will help them fill it out, or they can visit fafsa.ed.gov, the official government site.
Another option is the G.I. Bill, both the Montgomery and the Post-9/11 versions. Though these packages differ in some ways, they both offer substantial benefits for Airmen, helping cover numerous expenses. The Education Center offers assistance in activating those benefits.
Scholarships are also a key component of financing an education. Hundreds of organizations, both public and private, regularly post aid opportunities on scholarship database sites such as Fastweb.com and Schoolsoup.com. Overall, there are more than 200 such sites that Airmen can visit, though they should check with the Education Center to get a list of which sites are credible and which are fraudulent.
Also, Airmen should make sure they are not missing out on scholarships offered by the school they are attending, as many are often available to individuals who meet certain criteria.
Financial relief is available even after members may have paid for school, in the form of tax benefits. One of these is the Lifetime Learning tax credit, which offers taxpayers a 20 percent credit on tuition expenses. Individuals can receive up to $2,000 on the first $10,000 in expenses.
For example, if an Airman spends $5,000 a year on tuition, he or she can receive a $1,000 credit, assuming eligibility requirements are met. Of course, always file taxes through a certified, respected tax company or professional to ensure adherence to U.S. tax laws.
The greatest obstacle to Airmen pursuing and receiving these myriad benefits is simply lack of knowledge, said Carter.
"With the good team that we have, we have the resources, so we show them. In the beginning, we literally walk some of them through it, because it's unknown territory," he said.
Carter worked at State Fair Community College for several years before coming to Whiteman, and has acquired a wealth of experience in helping students chart a path to paying for their education. As a former ALS instructor, he has valuable insight on the budgeting challenges that Service members often face.
"He has been extremely valuable to us. He worked at State Fair Community College doing just this - finding aid for civilians trying to go to school - so we have an expert at our hands," said Rush, a former ALS instructor and commandant.
In this fiscally trying time, many Airmen may be tempted to take on loans to help pay school expenses. Given the numerous other opportunities available, however, such action is unwise and unnecessary.
Indeed, going into debt to fund an education can end up causing more financial hardship down the road than the costs the Airmen is seeking to avoid in the first place.
"Use loans as you've been taught to use a tourniquet - as a very last resort," said Carter.
Rush stressed that Airmen's first stop on the road to achieving a degree should be the Education Center, as experienced counselors can provide them with a wide variety of services. Some of these include interest surveys to help students figure out what they are most interested in, and therefore what degree they should pursue; counseling on what type of school the Airman should attend; and information on financial aid, commissioning and other topics.
"Anytime Airmen have questions, that's what we're here for," she said. "We're here to help them to find what will get them to their end goal."
Education is a priority for many members of Team Whiteman. As of March 11, when the Air Force announced the suspension of the TA program, 24 percent of active-duty Airmen here were receiving TA funds - 907 Airmen overall.
Airmen can visit the Education Center from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday-Friday, and walk-ins are welcome. Whiteman's dedicated team of education professionals is always eager to help individuals come up with an education plan and the strategy to pay for it.
"There's just such a wide variety of things that we talk with students about every day. I don't ever want an Airman to leave here not feeling like they've gotten the best," said Rush.
The strength of the counseling team is that everyone shares the same information, so Airmen know they are getting the right answers, no matter who they talk to.
"We're all on the same sheet of music. We're all sopranos here," Carter said.