The Air Force recently rolled out new Tuition Assistance rules that require supervisor oversight of TA requests and boots from the program troublemakers, fitness test failures and other substandard performers. However, Air Force leaders blew a golden opportunity to better ensure the continued viability of the popular program by not requiring airmen to pick up a share of TA costs.
The other services, set to announce their TA rules for 2014 any day now, should not make the same mistake as they struggle to contain TA spending while college costs soar and deep, mandatory budget cuts imposed under sequestration bleed accounts dry. Quickly running out of funds earlier this year, all services but the Navy halted TA programs and restarted them only after Congress ordered them to do so.
Navy and Army officials advocate returning to a cost-sharing requirement all the services used to operate under, with troops paying 25 percent of their education costs out of pocket. That changed in 2002, when the services began covering 100 percent of TA costs as an effective recruiting tool in a time of war. Those costs then tripled over a decade, to $562 million in 2011.
That’s simply unsustainable. Cost sharing should be central to getting TA expenses under control. It would not only signifcantly slash costs to the services but attract a higher percentage of participants fully committed to achieving educational goals. With “skin in the game” - their own money on the line - they would be more likely to complete their courses and the services would waste fewer resources seeking reimbursements from those who don’t.
Those troops who find it difficult to cover their share could do so by tapping the “Top up” progam under their G.I. Bill benefits, or seek loans or other financial aid. Better-educated troops is the payoff for the services.
To be sure, Tuition Assistance is a worthy program - better-educated troops is the payoff. Cost-sharing is the smarter call for Tuition Assistance.