Veterans and active duty military personnel are considered automatically independent for federal need analysis purposes. However, the Veterans Administration and the US Department of Education use a different definition of veteran, leading to some confusion. The definition of active duty also excludes active duty for training, attendance at a service school or, in many cases, members of the National Guard or Reserves.
The definition of veteran for Federal student aid purposes is not necessarily the same as the definition of veteran for VA purposes. This can lead to potential problems, since the FAFSA processor performs a data match with Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) records to confirm a student’s veteran status.
Section 480(d)(3) of the HEA indicates that a student is considered to be an independent student if he or she is a veteran of the US Armed Forces, which is defined in Section 480(c)(1) to mean any individual who:
- has engaged in the active duty in the United States Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, or Coast Guard; and
- was released under a condition other than dishonorable.
Section 8019 of the Higher Education Reconciliation Act of 2005 (P.L. 109-171) changed the definition of independent student to also include members of the Armed Forces serving on active duty for other than training purposes. HERA 2005 also defined active duty to exclude attendance at a service school.
Independent students do not need to report their parents’ financial information on the FAFSA.
There is no minimum amount of service required, so long as it was on active duty. A single day of service is considered sufficient, so long as the individual was released under a condition other than dishonorable.
Active duty includes basic training. The inclusion of basic training as active duty for independent student status is restricted to veterans. For individuals who are currently in the military, active duty excludes training. This is because section 480(c)(1) of the Higher Education Act defines ‘veteran’ as having been “engaged in active duty in the United States Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines or Coast Guard” and “was released under a condition other than dishonorable”, and section 480(d)(3) defines an independent student in terms of 480(c)(1), while the Higher Education Reconciliation Act of 2005 (PL 109-171) inserted “or is currently serving on active duty in the Armed Forces for other than training purposes”. So the “training purposes” exclusion only applies to service members who are currently in the Armed Forces, not those who have already been discharged.
Members of the National Guard or Reserves, however, are only considered to be veterans if they were called up to active Federal duty by presidential order for a purpose other than training. A member of the National Guard or Reserves who is called up to active State duty is not considered a veteran. A key issue is whether they were under the control of a regular component of the US Armed Forces or remained under the control of the National Guard or Reserves.
A member of the Reserves who was called to active duty but who was discharged before serving on active duty (e.g., due to medical reasons) is not considered a veteran.
If a member of the armed forces was discharged during basic training for medical reasons, they are still considered a veteran for Federal student aid purposes so long as they served at least one day before being discharged.
If a member of the National Guard or Reserves was called to active duty and released, but then remained in the National Guard or Reserves, they are still considered a veteran. So long as they were called to active Federal duty by presidential order for a purpose other than training, served at least one day on active duty, and then were released under a condition other than dishonorable, they are considered a veteran for Federal student aid purposes.
To be considered a veteran, the student must have been released from active duty. If the student is still on active duty, he or she is not yet a veteran. However, if the student will be a veteran by June 30 of the school year, he or she is treated as a veteran for Federal student aid purposes. In such a situation the student should supply a letter from a commanding officer indicating that the student will be released from active duty by June 30 and that the character of service so far has been other than dishonorable.
Students who are currently attending a US military academy and ROTC students are not considered veterans. However, students who attended a US military academy or a military academy preparatory school (USMAPS or NAPS, but not high school academies) are considered veterans, so long as they were released under a condition other than dishonorable. This is true even if they were discharged prior to their being commissioned, so long as the character of discharge was other than dishonorable. (A “dismissal” is generally considered the equivalent of a dishonorable discharge for an enlisted member.) Such individuals may be considered as veterans for Federal student aid purposes but not for VA purposes, and will likely be reported as non-veterans during the data match with the VA.
Family members who are enrolled at a US military academy are not counted in household size or number in college because their entire education is paid for by the US government.
Students might not show up in the VA records if they recently returned from service, as it takes several months for the VA records to be updated. Students might also be missing from the VA records if they served 180 or fewer days. Serving on active duty for a single day is sufficient for Federal student aid purposes, but not necessarily for VA purposes.
If the data match with VA records indicates that the student is not a veteran, but the student can present documentation indicating that they satisfy the requirements of the Higher Education Act, the school should perform a dependency override to treat them as an independent student. The student should also contact a regional VA office to have the records corrected, if necessary.
Satisfactory documentation includes a DD214 (Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty) indicating that the student served on active study and showing a “Character of Service” as anything but “dishonorable”. The “Member 4 Copy” is particularly helpful. A DD256 (Honorable Discharge Certificate) is also sufficient, as is a Statement of Service letter showing a “Character of Service” other than “dishonorable”. In the case of a “Statement of Service” letter, there is no requirement that the school verify actual discharge during the academic year, but some schools may ask for a copy of the DD214 anyway.
If a student does not have a copy of his or her DD214, he or she can request a copy from the National Personnel Records Center by submitting a SF 180. Veterans themselves may use vetrecs.archives.gov (online DD214 request) to request a copy of their military records.
A member of the National Guard or Reserves who served on active duty for purposes other than training might not have a DD214. In that case a letter from a superior officer that documents the call-up to active duty and which indicates that the character of service was anything but dishonorable is sufficient. The student’s “Original Orders” might be informative, especially if it indicates a call to “involuntary active duty”. If a DD214 is available, it should indicate that the student was called to active duty in accordance with Title 10 of the US Code and the “Type of Separation” should indicate something other than “active duty training”.
There are only six possible entries for “Character of Service” on the DD214:
- “Under Honorable Conditions (General)”
- “Under Other Than Honorable Conditions”
- “Bad Conduct”
Only a “Dishonorable” discharge has relevance to independent student status. Although “Under Other Than Honorable Conditions” and “Bad Conduct” are both considered to be less than honorable discharges, they are less severe than a “Dishonorable” discharge. An individual receiving a discharge of “Under Other Than Honorable Conditions” after serving under activity duty status would be considered a veteran for Federal student aid purposes and hence an independent student. Although his or her discharge was less than honorable, it was not dishonorable.
College financial aid personnel occasionally get confused when they see a character of service of “Under Other Than Honorable Conditions”. You need to emphasize to them that this is not the same as dishonorable, and that you are still considered a veteran for Federal student aid purposes.
An “Entry Level Separation” will occur when the individual had fewer than 180 days of continuous active service. The “Character of Service” will be “Uncharacterized”. Such an individual is considered a veteran for Federal student aid purposes (i.e., an independent student) if he or she served at least one day of active duty service.
State student aid may have more stringent requirements for the definition of a veteran than Federal student aid. For example, Pennsylvania state grants for veterans require the release to be under a condition other than dishonorable, bad conduct, uncharacterized or other than honorable. Likewise, individual VA education benefits may have more stringent eligibility requirements, such as requiring an honorable or general discharge.
Questions about veteran status in VA records can be directed to 1-800-827-1000. Questions about VA education benefits (i.e., GI Bill) can be directed to 1-888-GI-BILL-1 (1-888-442-4551).