Congress acted quickly last week to restore tuition assistance funding after the Army, Marine Corps and Air Force abruptly suspended the program.
Lawmakers ordered the Pentagon to sustain budgeted TA funding through Sept. 30.
Pentagon leaders might have expected that cutting TA would cause a storm, but it’s unlikely they anticipated the scale of the blowback, including more than 100,000 signatures on a White House petition to reverse the cuts.
Now it gets tricky. When word leaked out the Army would cut off TA funding, soldiers rushing to enroll ran up a tab of $36 million in just 72 hours. Turning TA back on could cause a similar run, and exhaust remaining funds. Leaders must devise a plan to ensure equal access to remaining funds, even if that means imposing new limits.
One good way to ensure available funds go further is to require TA recipients to pony up 25 percent of tuition costs. This would make the available funds cover more troops and weed out those taking courses only because they’re free, ensuring those who sign up are motivated to complete their courses. Limiting the number of courses a member can take in a given period, or the types of courses covered, or requiring members to be in a job for a set time before starting new classes are other ways to ensure TA funds have the desired effect.
The upside of this TA funding fiasco is that it shined a spotlight on the differences between how the services have managed this benefit, and how some of that money was wasted in the past.
Now is the time for the Pentagon to step in, set common standards, and ensure the long-term survival of a popular and highly valued benefit.