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9 tips for troops on tuition assistance

Mar. 12, 2013 - 11:25AM   |  

The news that the Army and Marine Corps are shutting down their tuition assistance programs rocked the military and education communities March 8, leaving even experts in the field stunned and wondering what to do next.

“This sends shock waves across the military,” said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “There’s a lot of apprehension, a lot of concern.”

Jim Sweizer, vice president for military programs at American Military University, the largest TA school nationwide in fiscal 2011, said the change will have a “tremendous impact.”

“None of us saw this coming,” said AMU spokesman Brian Muys.

If the experts are scrambling, what is the typical service member supposed to do? Here are some tips from the experts:

• Don’t drop your current classes. The changes will not apply to courses already in progress. And since this could be your last time to take classes on the TA dime, at least for a while, you should make the most of it.

• Talk to your Education Service Officer. ESOs know the options and programs available at your installation, have relationships with nearby schools and likely have been counseling a long line of troops on what to do without TA. Get in that line.

• Talk to your school. What will your school do if you have to take time off because you have no way to pay for classes? What process will you have to undergo to start taking classes again? Does your school have scholarships that could help make up for the lost TA? All are vital questions that can be answered only by the school you’re attending.

• Fill out a FAFSA. With tuition assistance and the GI Bill to rely on, some troops haven’t bothered with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid that other college students have grown to know well. It costs nothing to apply, and doing so is the only way to get your hands on thousands of dollars of federal grants and low-cost loans.

“Many of those guys are going to be eligible for Pell Grants, and they don’t even realize it,” said Kimrey Rhinehardt, vice president for federal relations at the University of North Carolina.

• Find out if the Army will pay for your school another way. The TA spigot is being turned off, but that’s not the only way the Army pays for classes. A major recently told Military Times that he earned an MBA from Texas A&M University while on active duty — and the Army paid for it outside of TA. Depending on your position and the programs that your installation has in place, you might be able to work out something similar.

• Seek private scholarships. Uncle Sam isn’t the only one who will help you with tuition. Several nonprofit organizations have set up scholarship funds exclusively for service members. Fill out some forms, write a few essays and you could be on your way to thousands of dollars in benefits.

“I hope there will be a philanthropic response, while Washington sorts themselves out,” Rieckhoff said.

• Be very cautious about using your GI Bill benefits instead of TA. You have a fixed amount of benefits, 36 months, through the GI Bill; when you use them, they’re gone. These benefits are geared largely toward full-time student veterans. If you’re enrolling in only a class or two because you’re on active duty — instead of taking the full course load that you could if you had your discharge papers — you won’t necessarily be “wasting” months of benefits. That’s because, according to the VA website, entitlement use is prorated based on your course load. For example, if you’re on active duty and taking one course worth one to three credit hours, you are considered to be attending school on a “quarter-time” basis. For each month that the course lasts, only a quarter-month is shaved off your 36-month entitlement. Similar pro-rated levels exist for half-time and three-quarter-time course loads, along with the standard full-time course load.

The big loss of benefits in using the Post-9/11 GI Bill while on active duty is that you can’t receive the program’s generous living stipend, though active-duty troops now can get the annual textbook allowance of up to $1,000.

• If you do opt for the GI Bill, figure out which GI Bill to use. The Post-9/11 GI Bill and the Montgomery GI Bill are set up very differently. While the Post-9/11 version is widely seen as more generous and flexible, your circumstances may make the older Montgomery version better. Unless you have more than one term of service under your belt, you can’t start using one and then switch to the other later, so think it through.

• What if I’m in the National Guard? Besides federal education benefits, National Guard members are eligible for additional benefits from most states and U.S. territories. The benefits are allotted, funded and managed by each state. The programs are subject to changes in state laws and available funding. Check with your state National Guard agency or recruiter for the most current information and full details about your territory or state’s education benefits.

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