In the military, you learn the importance of making a plan. In everything you do, there is a deliberate process to take the available resources and apply them to the best course of action. The same is true when you make a plan with your family's financial resources to save for higher education.
I joined the U.S. Army after I graduated from the University of Akron. My first assignment was to a Field Artillery unit in Germany, where I met my wife. After additional schooling with advanced courses for Field Artillery officers, I commanded a basic training unit. Later my Army career took my family to Fort Sill, Okla., the West Point Prep School, and the University of Akron. Other assignments included commanding a Base Support Battalion in Germany, serving as Chief of Staff to the Commander of the U.S. Third Army in Kuwait, and as the Military Assistant/Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Installations and Environment at the Pentagon. My service virtually took my family around the globe.
My wife and I made a plan for our family’s financial resources. As a military family, we didn’t know where we would end up but saving as much as possible for each of our daughters’ higher education was a priority. Our goal was to pay for much of an in-state educational experience as we could. With our plan set, we were disciplined, constantly and purposefully saved for our family’s higher education—no matter where in the world we were currently living.
For my own continuing education, I took advantage of the Veterans' Educational Assistance Program (VEAP), where the military would match a portion of the funds I set aside. With it and the Army’s tuition assistance program, I earned master’s degrees in history from the University of Monmouth and the U.S. I was also fortunate enough to receive a degree in Strategic Studies from the Army War College.
Later, the Post-9/11 GI Bill went into effect, offering great education benefits for those who served. Administered by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, this federal assistance includes 36 months of education benefits: full in-state public school tuition and fees, monthly housing allowance, and an annual books and supplies stipend. Suppose the military member or veteran chooses not to use these benefits for their education. In that case, they can transfer their unused GI bill benefits to their dependents—spouses and children to pay for their college or vocational training.
This is what my family opted to do. Along with the higher education savings we set aside through my military career, we used Post-9/11 GI Bill to support my daughters’ higher education. Knowing that these benefits were not a blank check, my family discussed our daughter’s college plans and how the GI Bill would supplement their college savings. As we had planned to pay for four years of in-state education, these newfound savings complemented our resources and abundantly covered their college costs.
529 plans work with Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits
When we started saving for our daughters’ higher education, 529s weren’t available, but I wish they were. 529 plans are specialized higher education savings accounts that offer tax-free earnings and tax-free withdrawals. Some states offer state income tax deductions or credits for 529 contributions. With Ohio’s 529 Plan, CollegeAdvantage, Ohio residents can currently deduct 529 contributions up to $4,000 per beneficiary, per year, from their state income tax. However, with unlimited carry forward, Ohioans can continue to deduct a large 529 plan contribution from their state income tax until all of it has been deducted.
If you split your Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits among your children, then a 529 plan can help cover the remaining qualified higher education expenses associated with attending a two-year or four-year college, trade or vocational school, apprenticeship, or certificate program. Eligible expenses range from tuition; mandatory fees; computer equipment and related technology and services; books; supplies, and equipment required for enrollment or attendance; room and board costs or off campus housing during any academic period the beneficiary is enrolled at least half-time; and certain expenses for a special-needs student. Room and board costs can also include rent for off-campus residency and groceries (non-taxable items), provided these costs are equal or less than the same room and board allowances from the accredited education institution.
Military academy attendance and 529s
What if you’ve been saving for college in a 529 plan and your child is selected to attend an U.S. military academy? You still have access to the college savings funds. While considered a non-qualified withdrawal, the parents can ask for a 529 plan disbursement up to the estimated cost of attending the military academy without incurring a 10% federal tax penalty. The earnings portion only of the withdrawal may be subject to federal, state, and local taxes.
Why save in Ohio’s 529 Plan?
Morningstar, a trusted investment research and management company, has given Ohio’s CollegeAdvantage Direct 529 Plan retained its silver rating. In addition, BlackRock CollegeAdvantage, Ohio’s Advisor 529 Plan retained its bronze ranking. This makes Ohio one of only three state programs that have both their Direct and Advisor 529 Plans ranked as medal class investment options by Morningstar. The high ranking for both CollegeAdvantage 529 Plans highlights the strength of these two college savings plans as well as the industry’s regard for Ohio’s 529 Plan as one of the best in the nation.
Forbes Advisor ranks Ohio’s 529 Plan as one of the six best college savings programs in the nation as of January 2022. According to their explanation: “Ohio’s 529 Plan comes with features in line with the other plans on our list, including low fees, a range of investment options and a tax deduction for Ohio taxpayers. … The plan also comes with a minimum contribution, both to open the account and for each contribution thereafter. But it is small ($25) and likely manageable for many plan participants.”
Also in February 2022, CNBC selected Ohio’s 529 Plan as one of the five best programs nationwide. As they wrote, “There isn’t much not to like about the CollegeAdvantage 529 plan — there’s a good mix of investment options (including FDIC-insured accounts), low fees and plans from top companies like Dimensional Fund Advisors. In fact, overall management fees are some of the lowest we’ve seen. Combined with low expense ratios, this makes this plan one of our top picks.”
Money Inc. ranks Ohio’s 529 Plan, CollegeAdvantage, second in its list of the top ten 529 programs nationwide. They highlighted the “tax break for Ohio residents, a diverse selection of investment alternatives, and low fees.”
Additionally, Ohio’s 529 Plan was named one of Military Saves 2021 Savings Champion for our continual support of this important program. Military Saves is part of the nonprofit Consumer Federation of America and is an initiative of America Saves. Military Saves works with government agencies, defense credit unions, military banks, and nonprofit organizations to promote savings and debt reduction.
A 529 plan perfectly complements the benefits of the Post-9/11 GI Bill. To learn more about Ohio’s 529 Plan, visit CollegeAdvantage.com. With Ohio’s 529 Plan, it only takes $25 to start. Visit VA.gov for more information about the GI Bill education benefits and many other services and benefits available to military personnel and their families.
On this Veterans Day, let’s remember all who have served for our country’s greater good and also remember that our freedoms would not be possible without their willingness to answer that call to duty.
About the author:
Tim Gorrell is the former executive director of Ohio Tuition Trust Authority. Previously, he served as the director of the Ohio Department of Veteran Services. Col. Gorrell, who retired from the U.S. Army after serving 31 years, is a highly awarded and decorated military leader. For 33 years, Ohio Tuition Trust Authority has sponsored and administered Ohio’s 529 College Savings Program, CollegeAdvantage. Ohio’s 529 Plan oversees more than 680,000 accounts and over $13.39 billion in assets as of September 30, 2022. Visit CollegeAdvantage.com or call 1-800-AFFORD-IT (233-6734) for more information.