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Tuition assistance is back, with some changes

Mar. 25, 2013 - 07:26AM   |  
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Here’s what the other services were saying at press time:
Air Force
The plan: Officials are working with their service counterparts to craft a plan for the rest of this fiscal year, with a decision expected in the coming weeks, said Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. John Dorrian.
Who’s using it now: The Air Force budgeted $128 million in tuition assistance for active-duty airmen in 2013, said Russell Frasz, the Air Force’s director of force development. Of that, the service had allocated about $110 million by March 11, when it suspended TA. At that time, 73,000 active-duty airmen were using the benefit, Frasz said.
Eligibility: Looking ahead to 2014, the Air Force probably will have to tighten eligibility rules, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody told Military Times. Possibilities include limiting TA to airmen who are not already earning college credits through training or formal education provided by the service; returning to the 75/25 percent split; and providing tuition assistance only to midcareer airmen, Cody said in a video message to airmen.
Coast Guard
The plan: The Coast Guard announced March 22 that it will reinstate TA. Service officials are “working to establish a timeline for reinstatement,” officials said in a press release.
Who’s using it now: The Coast Guard has averaged about 10,000 TA enrollees per year for the past three years and expects to serve around the same number of people this year. To date, about 7,000 Coast Guard personnel have participated in TA this fiscal year. When the service shut down its TA program March 9, it had spent more than $11 million in the current fiscal year. Total funding has averaged about $20 million a year for the last three years.
Marine Corps
The plan: “A Marine administrative message … on tuition assistance will be published which will include an effective date” for relaunching the program, Maj. Shawn Haney, a manpower and reserve affairs spokeswoman in Quantico, Va., said March 21. Until then, TA requests will not be processed.
Who’s using it now: As of March 4, when the Corps suspended its program, it had paid out or obligated about $28 million of the $47 million it had budgeted for TA in fiscal 2013, which ends Sept. 30. That covered 14,280 Marines enrolled in courses as of March 4. The sequestration cuts may further reduce remaining funding by as much as $4.4 million.
The Navy was the only service that didn’t suspend TA outright. Officials said their goal all along was never to suspend TA, but to rework the rules.
The plan: The Navy has sought DoD permission to move to the 75/25 funding model. Most likely, that would mean sailors would pay their portion upfront, when registering for the class. Sailors already taking a class, or those who had approval for classes, will not have to pay, the sources said.
Who’s using it now: More than 48,000 people used Navy TA in fiscal 2012, at a cost of about $84 million. Vice Adm. Scott Van Buskirk, the Navy’s personnel chief, said funding for this fiscal year is about the same. He told Congress on March 13 that the Navy had spent a little more than $40 million so far to pay for courses for about 27,000 people.
Eligibility: Sources say the Navy will not try to tighten up who is eligible for the program. The Navy already manages it quite heavily with strict rules and procedures. Since junior sailors are more likely to flunk out, neither enlisted members nor officers can use TA in their first year at an initial permanent duty station. Sailors also must have passed their most recent advancement exam, as well as their latest physical fitness assessment; have no record of nonjudicial punishment in the previous six months; and must currently be recommended for promotion or advancement.

Tuition assistance has been rescued by Congress after thousands of troops complained when most of the services suspended the popular education benefit as a cost-cutting move.

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Tuition assistance has been rescued by Congress after thousands of troops complained when most of the services suspended the popular education benefit as a cost-cutting move.

Under the 2013 federal spending bill passed March 21, the Air Force, Army and Marine Corps must restart their TA programs; the Navy, which never closed its program, is prohibited from dropping its benefits. TA must keep running through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.

The legislation ordering TA to be reinstated covered only the Defense Department, according to congressional staffers. The Coast Guard, which also suspended its program, comes under the Homeland Security Department. However, Coast Guard officials said March 22 they will also revive TA through the rest of the fiscal year.

The services are also indicating that TA will be available in fiscal 2014. But it could return in much different form from what today’s troops are used to.

Eligibility rules may be tightened to stretch the available funding. The program’s basic structure also may change. The Navy is pushing to return the program to its pre-2000 model, under which the services paid 75 percent of tuition and troops kicked in the other 25 percent.

The rationale behind that idea, which seems to be gaining traction with some of the other services, is that forcing troops to put some “skin in the game” gives them more of a stake in the outcome, serving as an incentive to complete their courses.

The bill that ordered TA to be revived, HR 933, passed the Senate on March 20 and the House on March 21, and is expected to be signed by President Obama by March 27 because its primary purpose is to avert a government shutdown on that date.

Congress has not provided the Pentagon with the $250 million to $300 million the services planned to save by cutting off TA for the rest of this fiscal year, and the services may make modest cuts in the remaining funding for this year’s TA program as part of broader, across-the-board cuts in the Pentagon budget. That reduction is expected to be about 9 percent.

Exactly when the program will return, and in what form, is not clear. Navy Cmdr. Leslie Hull-Ryde, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said the legislation will “require the services to make difficult and very thoughtful decisions on how to fund tuition assistance” for the rest of this fiscal year “without impacting readiness.”

Army plans

Late on March 22, an Army spokesman said the service will comply with the congressional mandate to restore the program, adding that doing so will “require the Army to make difficult, deliberate and thoughtful decisions on how to fund tuition assistance.”

The spokesman, Lt. Col. Tom Alexander, of the office of the deputy chief of staff for personnel, said the Army has already spent $201 million in TA funds this fiscal year, out of a total budget of $286 million, leaving $85 million for the final six months this fiscal year.

That may not go far. Lt. Gen. Howard Bromberg, the Army’s personnel chief, recently told Congress that once soldiers heard TA was shutting down, there was a rush to sign up.

“We burned through $500,000 an hour” in last-minute TA requests, Bromberg said.

At that rate, the remaining pot of TA money would vanish in a little over a week’s time.

There is speculation that the Army will seek to return to the 75/25 payment model, in place until 2002, partly to save money, partly to boost course completion rates. Soldiers completed 86 percent of courses last fiscal year, Alexander said. Of the 14 percent of uncompleted courses, 2 percent were due to military duties, including deployments. The rest were due to “personal” reasons.

The Army attempted to have those soldiers repay the wasted TA funds, recovering $19.5 million. Soldiers were allowed to set up payment plans through payroll deductions.

Soldiers must reimburse the Army if they withdraw or fail to complete a course for academic or personal reasons, including getting an “F” for nonattendance, failing to remove an “I” for an incomplete grade, or getting a “D” or “F” in a graduate course.

Also, troops must maintain a 2.0 grade-point average (after 15 semester hours) for undergraduate courses and a 3.0 (after six hours) for graduate courses funded by TA.

Two Senate Armed Services Committee members — Sens. James Inhofe, R-Okla., and Kay Hagan, D-N.C. — are largely responsible for saving TA, urging Senate colleagues to accept an amendment to undo this one consequence of budget cuts even as dozens of proposals to protect other programs were blocked.

Inhofe, ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee and chief sponsor of the TA resolution, said he heard from many “alarmed” troops on the issue.

Hagan, who leads the committee’s emerging threats panel and is a co-sponsor of the amendment, noted that 100,000 people used TA in 2011, reflecting the popularity of the program, and 50,000 received a diploma, certificate or license, showing its value.

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