School's Not Out Forever: Make Your College Game Plan Early

June Lantz Walbert is a USAA Certified Financial Planner and lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve.

So finals are in your rearview mirror, papers handed in and grades checked. The relief is palpable for you and your parents. School's out for summer! Now what? You shrug. While the timeless tune "School's Out" doesn't offer any ideas, I have a few.

Be a Fool and don't let all of your mental faculties rest this summer. Now is a great time to start thinking, about, well, school -- college, that is.

College pays in spades. A 2006 Census Bureau report put the value of a college degree at one million dollars or more in additional earning power throughout one's working life, doubling what a high school grad might expect to make.

Plus, a college education provides a hedge against a bad economy. With national unemployment running more than nine percent, Bureau of Labor stats indicate a rosier picture for college grads with an unemployment rate about half the national average, while high school grads inch past the national rate.

But it's expensive. When it comes to paying for school, there's more than one way to skin a cat.

Post 9/11 GI Bill could fill the bill. Our Military Fools -- and their kids and spouses! -- are fortunate to have the Post 9/11 GI Bill as at least a part of their plan. Not your grandfather's GI Bill, this could be your ticket to school. These days, benefits can be transferred to a military spouse or kids (this could possibly mean you). It provides for a total of 36 months (sounds weird, but it is four school years) of tuition based on the highest public school tuition where you choose to enroll. Private and foreign school payments are capped at $17,500. The bill also has a provision to cover some housing and book expenses. The service member must have at least six years of service on the date of the transferability election and would have to agree to serve four additional years from that date. There are some exceptions for pending retirement dates and disabilities. An important note: That four-year clock starts ticking when paperwork is approved. Check it out at www.gibill.va.gov.

Need a rich uncle? How about one named Sam? If your pesky little sister has already laid claim to those GI Bill benefits, you might consider staking out your own military education benefits by enlisting and gaining some life experience before college or through ROTC or a service academy appointment. When I was in ROTC, I was offered a full ride. If you feel up to serving our great nation for a few years, this could be the ticket for you. Learn more here.

Bargain hunt for scholarships and grants. During your summer break, make it a point to scour the internet for opportunities. According to scholarship.com, you should start your search in the junior year of high school. Check with your school counselors for ideas and resources. Apply for dozens while not shying away from the small fish, and don't worry if you don't consider yourself a scholar or an athlete. There could be a few thousand dollars per year out there for the taking, but you have to apply first.

2 + 2 = 4 (or if you want to be really math savvy, 2 x 2 still equals 4). Hitting the junior college circuit for the first two years to knockout the basic education requirements can help lower your college costs. Not only will you save on tuition, but most likely on housing and food. No one cares how or where you started, they care that you finished and can say so on your resume.

Robbing Peter to pay Paul may not be a bad option. In debt is not the ideal way to start a career, but it is an option worth considering. With the average college student graduating with more than $23,000 in debt, the government recently made that option more palatable. Starting in 2014, repayment of government loans will be limited to 10% of the graduate's income and the balance will be forgiven after 20 years of payments. If you enter a host of public service careers, including the military, nursing, etc., your remaining debt will be forgiven after 10 years. Additionally, the government has cut out the middle man, making loans directly through school financial aid offices.

Working (for more than just beer money). There's something to be said for you to have some skin in the game. Holding down a job and going to college may prolong the process, but college can be a blast. Delivering a few pizzas or selling shoes is a small price to pay for reducing student loan baggage and having some spending money to boot.

The 1972 "School's Out" release quickly became the soundtrack for summer vacation. But don't let school be out forever. Make your college game plan early!

June Lantz Walbert is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER practitioner with USAA Financial Planning Services. She is also a lieu­tenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve with 20 years of service. Walbert's basic branch is Air Defense Artillery. She writes a weekly advice column, "Ask June" on military.com. Follow June @AskJune_usaa.

USAA or its affiliates do not provide tax advice. Taxpayers should seek advice based upon their own particular circumstances from an independent tax advisor.

This material is for informational purposes. Consider your own financial circumstances carefully before making a decision and consult with your tax, legal or estate planning professional.

USAA Financial Planning Services is a service mark of USAA that refers to the financial planning services and financial advice provided by USAA Financial Planning Services Insurance Agency, Inc. (known as USAA Financial Insurance Company in California, Lic. #0E36312), a registered investment adviser and insurance agency and its wholly owned subsidiary. Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Inc., owns the certification marks CFP ® and CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER TM in the U.S. which it awards to individuals who successfully complete CFP Board's initial and ongoing certification requirements.

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