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TA changes: Semester-hour limit, yearlong wait take effect Jan. 1

Dec. 14, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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Major changes are coming Jan.1 to the tuition assistance program.

Despite budget pressures on all Army programs, the new rules are not budget-driven. Rather, they are designed to better control how soldiers use civilian eduction to enhance their military careers.

The TA policy changes follow an extensive review of the program by Human Resources Command and senior leaders, according to Brig. Gen. David K. MacEwen, the Army adjutant general and director of HRC’s adjutant general directorate.

“What we found was that TA had gotten a little off track from the original intent of the program, which was to provide soldiers with a part-time, off-duty way to continue their education,” MacEwen said.

The new rules apply to the nearly 160,000 officers and enlisted soldiers of the Regular Army, National Guard and Army Reserve who have been pursuing college degrees with TA support.

Officials estimate that 48,000 soldiers could be adversely affected by the policy changes approved by Army Secretary John McHugh in November. The key changes are:

■Soldiers will be limited to 16 semester hours of TA-funded studies during a fiscal year. Based on existing participation rates, this policy will affect about 20,000 Regular Army soldiers, 6,200 National Guard members and 12,000 Army Reserve soldiers.

■Soldiers will not be allowed to use TA until one year after they complete initial entry training, whether that be the Basic Officer Leadership Course, Officer Candidate School or Advanced Individual Training. Based on current usage, this will affect about 4,000 Regular Army soldiers, 3,000 National Guardsmen and 1,200 Army reservists.

■Soldiers will not be allowed to use TA for post-bachelor’s degrees until they have completed at least 10 years of service, unless they entered the Army with a bachelor’s degree. Soldiers in the latter category will be allowed to begin graduate studies one year after the completion of initial entry training. Based on current usage, this change could affect 1,300 Regular Army soldiers, 220 National Guardsmen and 367 Army Reserve members.

Recommendations coming out of that review have resulted in the stricter enforcement of a long-standing policy that requires soldiers to be in compliance with physical fitness and weight control standards, and not be under a flag for adverse personnel action, to qualify for TA.

During 2013, TA funded the completion of 8,525 degrees for Regular Army soldiers, 1,359 for members of the National Guard and 1,469 Army reservists.

Soldiers completed 413,000 TA-funded courses in 2013 at a cost of $335 million, which was $38 million less than in 2012.

Officials expect that funding will decline further as the Army gets smaller and the effects of the Jan. 1 policy changes are felt.

The TA program will continue to be funded up to $4,500 annually per soldier, with a payment cap of $250 per semester hour. As under existing policy, TA can be used to pay for 130 semester hours of study toward completion of a bachelor’s degree, and 39 hours for a master’s degree.

All courses must be taken through an accredited institution, and be part of an approved degree plan. TA cannot be used to fund a second equivalent degree or for first professional degrees, such as those awarded to medical doctors and lawyers.

MacEwen said it’s important for soldiers to work with their local education center when developing their degree plans.

“What we have found is that when soldiers have a good plan, there are good completion rates, which supports [the leader development] goal of lifelong learning,” he said.

“I know that we value civilian education because it allows our soldiers to look beyond the military solution,” Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond Chandler said in an earlier interview. “If you limit yourself to military learning, then you only are going to see things with a military perspective.”

Chandler indicated he supports a policy change that requires new soldiers to delay TA participation for at least one year after leaving initial entry training.

Early enrollment in college studies “creates a tension among young men and women who have just graduated from [initial] training and who have a very, very limited knowledge of what their [military occupational specialty] truly is, and what is expected of them in their job,” Chandler said.

“These soldiers should be concentrating on their job first because that is why they are in the Army,” he said.

Chandler also is supportive of the changes that cap the number of semester hours that can be funded annually, and the new rule that will delay graduate studies until soldiers reach career status at 10 years of service.

The sergeant major said that soon after the TA program was temporarily suspended in March 2013, he received an email from a soldier who was upset that after five years in the Army, he was two classes short of earning a master’s degree, but the Army had interrupted his plans.

“It’s commendable that he has been able to do this, but is this really something we should expect from our soldiers? What has this soldier been doing for the Army?” Chandler asked. “We’ll be supportive in helping soldiers meet their educational goals, but it’s tough for me to rationalize that a person who has been in the Army for five years has been able to attain not only a bachelor’s degree but is only two classes away from a master’s degree.”

TA can be used for certain nondegree studies in a priority foreign language and for one postsecondary certificate or diploma, such as those awarded for welding or computer studies. However, these hours will count toward the 130-semester hour cap for undergraduate studies.

TA also can be used to pay for professional education courses leading to an initial state teacher certification program.

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