A Waste of Money for Spouses to Go Back to School?


Going back to school as a military wife or husband presents a host of problems.  

On top of the steep tuition and lost wages, military spouses also have to factor in PCS moves, educational benefits that may or may not apply, and locations that are not always hotbeds of higher education.

To figure out whether a degree would be a waste of money or a worthwhile investment in your career, start by asking yourself these four questions:

1. What kind of debt will you incur?

“I want a degree in social justice and to work for non-profits helping low-income families,” says Air Force wife Becky. “MyCAA isn’t available for me, and I won’t make much money starting out. In fact, as a non-profiter, I won’t make much money at all. So that limits what I can pay back.”

To keep things fiscally responsible, Becky found a program that let her work a paid internship while also in school.

“We’re in a big city, so that helps,” she admits. “But I also thought that while we are still here, and there are these opportunities, like for this internship, I should take advantage of them.”

The rule of thumb for education debt is to never borrow more than you would make in your first year on the job for which you are training.

If you are concerned about the debt you are accruing or the potentiality of that debt in your budget, speak to someone at USAA or your local bank.

And while you are still looking at programs, these are majors that really help military spouses get work, and these are real jobs you can get with an associate’s degree that MyCAA will cover.

2. What other ways can you pay for school?

The good news is that for many spouses, there are educational benefits that can seriously defray the cost of your degree. Check out our guide, How Military Spouses Pay for College, and figure out what you have available.

MyCAA is the most popular educational benefit for military spouses, but it is not a given. In addition to being financially capped at $4,000, MyCAA is also rank-specific.

If you intend to rely on MyCAA and other financial supports for help, make sure there will be no change in status -- like a promotion or a transition out of active duty -- that could affect your receipt while you are still in school.

“I have friends that got into trouble that way,” Navy wife Elizabeth notes. “Their husbands were one rank when they started school but then they couldn’t finish it with the aid before their husband promoted out of the MyCAA eligibility.”

Anything above and beyond your benefit needs to be in your financial game plan.

Think beyond the tuition bill to the cost of transportation to and from school, the time you’ll need to find childcare for your children so you can study, and the possibility that a PCS might pop up in the middle of your degree -- potentially extending your education time.

These are the kinds of expenses for which you will need a plan, and maybe even liquid assets -- what do you have on hand? Can you cover these expenses out of pocket if you need to?

For many spouses, that answer might be no, but it does not mean you should shy away from school. It just means you need a firm plan in place to help cushion the blow of Murphy’s Law.

3. How will the military Murphy’s Law affect my plans?

Deploying before graduation? PCSing mid-term? Move over, regular scholars. Military spouses may have more on their plates to think through than the average college student, but they also have the experience with everyone’s favorite friend Murphy to make it all work out.

“My husband was supposed to deploy right after our second term started,” says Marine wife Emma. “We could get my new car out of that. And I really needed one. Mine was ready to break. And my savings could go toward school expenses -- books, gas, etc.”

Three months later, Emma got word her husband’s deployment would be canceled.

“I was really happy he was going to be home,” she said. “But the car got put on hold. It broke down and we became a one-car family. That made getting to school really hard, so I was glad I already knew the local bus route would take me to the school. If I had gone to the other college in town, I would have never been able to get there.”

Your Plan B can be loose, like Emma’s. Just make sure you have a plan. The rule of Murphy’s Law applies to school as much as it does to deployment, so show Murphy the door with a little proactive thinking.

4. Is this the right place for me to become a student?

When it comes to location, ask yourself: Is this the right installation from which to pursue your degree?

While Becky decided to go to school while she and her husband were stationed in an urban area with lots of options, Elizabeth made the opposite choice.

“I decided to go back to school because there’s nothing else to do here,” she said. “Jacksonville, North Carolina, has a lot of jobs for waitresses and clerks, but I don’t want to do that. I want to do something different, so I decided to go back to school now to make my resume better when there is nothing better to do as a job.”

Elizabeth adds that because her husband was deploying soon, she thought school would be a good option for her.

“It would keep me busy and focused on a goal,” she said. “I thought I would be able to focus more during a deployment than when he’s here.”

Maybe you want to go to school when you know your spouse can help balance the domestic responsibilities. Or maybe you want to do it when you’re on your own. Maybe you want to go to school when you are near a larger town so you can make educational choices and not be limited to the one local college.

Whatever you choose, think about how your location affects your education -- and whether the military lifestyle will be affecting your location any time soon.

No matter what your answers are to these questions, it is hard to argue with the logic of going back to school. But just because it’s a good thing, doesn’t mean it’s good right now, so make sure that when and where you choose to do it are right for your future and your bank account. 

When you decided to go back to school, how did you know it was worth it? Or are you still waiting for the time when you think it will be?

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