The abrupt suspension of the service’s tuition assistance program could end as early as August, Air Force officials said amid an onslaught of complaints and attempts by lawmakers and petitioners to the White House to reverse the decision.
The Air Force joined the Army, Marine Corps and Coast Guard in announcing a suspension of the program March 11. Airmen with approved classes will be covered; no other classes will be approved until Air Force leaders confirm they can proceed with tuition assistance in 2014, said Russell Frasz, director of force development.
“The word is suspend,” Frasz said in a phone interview. “We’re not canceling the program.”
Although the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1, Air Force leaders might allow airmen to apply for tuition assistance in August for classes that begin in the fall, Frasz said. Airmen usually can apply for tuition assistance up to 60 days before classes begin.
Senior leadership may adjust the program when it returns. Among the considerations: returning to the pre-2001 status of covering only 75 percent of tuition and fees, or adjusting the criteria for receiving tuition assistance.
“Will the ’14 program look identical to the ’13? I’m confident in saying it won’t,” Frasz said. “We do have a ’14 program that’s already funded. We might make some adjustments to that once again if sequestration carries over into the next fiscal years.”
The Air Force has requested $100 million to fund the service’s tuition assistance program for fiscal 2014, which is about $28 million less than the service requested this year. It also is $10 million less than the service estimates it will spend this year for the more than 73,000 airmen — from airmen basic to colonel — currently paying for classes with tuition assistance.
Lt. Gen. Darrell Jones, deputy chief of staff for manpower personnel and services, told the House Armed Services Committee military personnel subcommittee March 13 that 115,000 airmen take 277,000 college courses at 1,200 colleges and universities over the course of a typical fiscal year.
“Now, we did not shut off the program for anybody who is in the program now,” he said. “But it’s the next course that they would try to sign up for.”
The decision to suspend tuition assistance was a tough one because lacking required courses can have an impact on promotion, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody said in a letter to airmen.
“We remain committed as ever to ensuring airmen have the opportunity and means to pursue educational goals,” he said. “We’re still looking at the impacts for [fiscal 2014] and will do our best to have [tuition assistance] reinstated, although we’ll likely need to review the eligibility requirements to ensure sustainability.”
Pentagon press secretary George Little said no decisions have been made about the next fiscal year.
“I’m not going to get out ahead of where we are right now,” he said during a March 12 press briefing. “We’re still dealing with fiscal ’13.”
Little said tuition assistance is one of many programs the department will have to study. He likened the decision to cut the program to swallowing “bitter pills.”
“That’s just the reality of it, and we’re being straightforward with the force about this,” Little said. “We’re dealing with it. We’re grappling with it. The secretary would like to have this all go away as a problem, but his very clear instructions have been for us, in a very calm, cool and collected manner, to deal with the hand we have been dealt — and it’s an unfortunate hand that we’ve been dealt.”
Little added that the decisions stem from a nearly two-year conversation and “should come as no surprise to anyone.”
Except apparently for airmen using the service, the educational institutions that have received TA dollars, and members of Congress. They voiced shock and disgust over the abrupt suspension.
“It was already bad enough that tuition assistance hasn’t risen from $250 per credit hour since I joined over six years ago, while tuition costs have skyrocketed,” said Staff Sgt. Zachary Kinder of the 97th Intelligence Squadron at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. “I know many airmen who re-enlisted to transfer their Post-9/11 GI Bill to their spouse or children. With tuition assistance cut, many of these airmen are going to have to choose whether to continue their own education or use the GI Bill themselves and take it away from their dependents.”
Another summed up the perceived unfairness reflected in dozens of comments on the Air Force Times Facebook page.
“It’s a shame, drop in the bucket and more of a statement of how can we make this hurt?” wrote Roberta Turner. “Oh let’s cut the one benefit that actually benefits the member, AF and the nation — an educated people is what brings us out of the dark times — decisions like this, turn the lights out on hope.”
An online petition created March 8 on the White House website seeking to get tuition assistance reinstated had received the required 100,000 signatures to initiate a review by the Obama administration. The threshold was reached in six days.
Airmen who are only a few courses away from graduation, or only need a couple of courses to keep their graduation date on course, are being urged to use some of their Post-9/11 GI Bill. Frasz said while the GI Bill is not designed for active-duty airmen to use to finish all of the requirements of a bachelor’s degree while going to school part time, it is a good option to help airmen get through these next six months without tuition assistance.
Airmen who have transferred their benefits to dependents can work with the Veterans Affairs Department to transfer them back, he said.
“We’re only talking about six months,” Frasz said. “If we’re able to start the program in October, most likely we’ll allow individuals to start registering online, or start visiting the base education offices most likely in the August time frame.”
Schools that cater to members of the military are also trying to fill the gap by announcing scholarships or other funding initiatives to help troops stay on track with their education.
Park University, which is among the top five schools where airmen are spending their tuition assistance dollars, is offering emergency military scholarships to qualified active-duty military personnel who are not eligible for GI Bill benefits, Pell Grants or federal loans.
Methodist University is offering free tuition for up to four courses during the night spring term and the summer evening term, which begin March 18 and May 20, respectively, to active-duty personnel who have been affected by the suspension of tuition assistance benefits. The free tuition offer expires July 15.
Troy University officials said they would reduce tuition to $250 per credit hour for some service members who would otherwise be eligible for tuition assistance.
Embry-Riddle, which has nearly 8,000 airmen students, is among the many schools that are making sure their staffs know what other financial assistance and veterans benefits are available.
Airmen also will still have the opportunity to receive course credit through the College Level Examination Program and the Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support. Airmen have used 97,000 credit hours to earn course credit toward degrees without spending any tuition assistance funds. Frasz said those programs remain available to airmen during the suspension.
John Ebersole, president of Excelsior College, said he has already seen a 20 percent drop in enrollment for the March term. Excelsior offers online courses and about 29 percent of its enrollment, or 10,700 students, are military members. Five percent of those are airmen.
Ebersole said while it would be good news if the Air Force could have a program in fiscal 2014, suspending it for six months will likely cost airmen the opportunity to earn as many as nine units toward their degrees.
“I’m largely convinced [suspending tuition assistance] is a political ploy,” Ebersole said in a phone interview. “I’m retired military and as a military officer, I felt it was my responsibility to protect the interest of my people. For military leadership, at the most senior levels, to cave in to the politicians on this is reprehensible. They’ve failed at their work.”
If military leaders have found some political leverage in canceling tuition assistance, whether for six months or forever, there are signs that it could be working.
Ebersole pointed to the efforts of 10 House Republicans who want to use unspent foreign aid to Egypt for military tuition assistance. The ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., and Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., proposed reinstating tuition assistance through a continuing resolution that would fund the federal government through the end of the fiscal year. Because Congress did not pass a budget for this fiscal year, the government is operating under a continuing resolution that holds federal agencies to 2012 levels. It expires March 27.
Air Force leaders weighed the need for combat readiness, modernization and the immediate concern of potentially furloughing its more than 180,000 civilian employees against providing a benefit that is not guaranteed to service members, Frasz said. Suspending the tuition assistance program will help the service save operations and maintenance dollars, but there are many unfunded requirements that those savings might be used toward, he said.
“We’re trying to keep our forces combat-ready as long as possible,” Frasz said.
Frasz said educational opportunities such as those that send airmen for advanced degrees through the Air Force Institute of Technology and programs designed to enhance language skills are on track to be funded for the rest of this fiscal year.
Senior leaders have warned they may have to cancel short-term professional military education programs such as Squadron Officer School for officers and noncommissioned officer academies for enlisted airmen, which would affect 5,412 enlisted airmen and 2,412 officers.
Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said in February the Air Force was waiting to see if Congress would give the Defense Department some latitude in its budget for the rest of 2013 before making a decision about PME.
Frasz reiterated those decisions will be made after Congress passes — or fails to pass — a continuing resolution when the current one expires March 27.
“As our government tries to wrestle with the continuing resolution and whether the services get any money — all of those decisions are weighing in on our senior leadership — we have to balance that with readiness and modernization,” Frasz said. “A lot of tough decisions have to be made.”
Staff writer Jeff Schogol contributed to this report.