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Tuition assistance is back, with some changes

Mar. 25, 2013 - 10:05AM   |  
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Congress has rescued tuition assistance after thousands of troops complained when most of the services suspended the popular education benefit as a cost-cutting move.

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Congress has rescued tuition assistance 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. 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 TA will be available in fiscal 2014. But it could return in a new form.

Eligibility rules may be tightened to stretch available funding. The program’s basic structure also may change. The Navy is pushing to return to the 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 not only to stretch the program’s funding, but also to force troops to put some “skin in the game” and give them more of an incentive to complete their courses.

Jim Sweizer, former chief of voluntary education for the Air Force, said that the services would likely run out of funds for TA this year if they simply restart the program without new restrictions.

“The simplest way to do it is to … control the number of courses an individual is allowed to take each term. That would be a quick and effective way to limit a run on the bank, so to speak,” said Sweizer, now vice president of military programs at American Military University, the country’s top TA school in fiscal 2011. He was not speaking on behalf of the school.

Sweizer said having troops pay part of the costs may be the most viable long-term solution to preserve the program. “That [model] was effective for four decades,” he said. “It’s tried and true.”

Jeff Cropsey, who worked for four decades in education for DoD and various services, said another possibility might be to fund only undergraduate courses.

“There’s all sorts of equations they could do,” said Cropsey, who works at Grantham University but, like Sweizer, was not speaking on the school’s behalf.

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.”

At press time, Air Force officials were working with counterparts in the other services 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.

The Air Force budgeted $128 million in tuition assistance for active-duty airmen in 2013, said Russell Frasz, Air Force 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.

Even before Congress directed DoD to reinstate the program, Air Force officials said they expected TA to return in fiscal 2014, though it may not be as generous.

The service programmed $100 million for TA in fiscal 2014 but has yet to decide whether tuition will be covered at 100 percent or returned to the pre-2001 payment of 75 percent, with airmen paying the other 25 percent, Frasz said.

Looking ahead to 2014, the Air Force probably will have to tighten eligibility rules, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody told Air Force Times.

Possibilities include limiting TA to airmen 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.

“What we are looking at is what is the best model for our Air Force to be able to sustain this program over time,” he said.

Cody said TA has been underfunded for 10 years, and the service has had to pull money from other budget accounts to pay for it.

The $100 million planned for TA 2014 is about $100 million short of what the Air Force would need to continue the program in its familiar form, Cody said.

———

Staff writers Mark Faram, Gidget Fuentes, Jim Tice, Antonieta Rico and George Altman contributed to this story.

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