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Future of tuition assistance remains uncertain

Aug. 30, 2013 - 10:13AM   |  

Most of the military remains in the dark about what changes will be coming to tuition assistance, with just one month until the start of a new, likely cash-strapped fiscal year, when such changes are to take effect.

Several branches indicated that they are looking for ways to trim the cost of the education benefit, which some 380,000 troops used in fiscal 2012. But only the Air Force has a plan in place so far.

The other branches of the military indicated that they are either still developing their plans or are attempting to coordinate with the Defense Department.

For its part, DoD is saying very little about what will happen with TA or how large an oversight role the department plans to take.

“DoD leadership is committed to preserving a tuition assistance program that assists service members in achieving their education goals while maintaining mission readiness during this fiscally challenging time,” spokesman Nate Christensen said in a prepared statement.

Christensen would not answer questions about the matter or provide any further information.

In the spring, services began announcing dramatic changes to their TA programs in response to budget pressure from the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration. Branches suspended their TA programs abruptly and entirely, acknowledging the suspensions one by one over a series of days. But the services did not handle the matter uniformly; the Navy bucked the trend and kept its TA program in place. In response, Congress required all of the services to reinstate their TA programs for the rest of the fiscal year.

While DoD and the services have indicated that they want to preserve the program in some form, it remains unclear whether the start of the new fiscal year will bring another chaotic and uneven series of TA changes across the armed forces.

Navy spokesman Chris Servello indicated that his branch has submitted a proposal to DoD and is waiting for the department to come back with a final plan.

The Marine Corps doesn’t yet have a plan ready to submit to DoD and doesn’t think it needs to submit the proposal to DoD when it is ready: “I have not been tasked, nor has the Marine Corps been tasked, by [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] to submit our plan for approval,” said Shawn Conlon, branch head of personal and professional development within the Marine and Family Programs Division.

Conlon added that he thinks the Defense Department doesn’t want the services to come up with “wildly divergent plans,” but it’s not clear how that will be prevented.

“At the senior levels ... there will eventually be some coordination, but I can’t tell you at what level, and what that will be,” he said.

Army spokesman Paul Prince provided only a two-sentence statement: “No final decision has been made regarding FY 2014 tuition assistance policy changes for the Army.” That was followed by a sentence that almost exactly mirrored Christensen’s statement for DoD.

In contrast, the Air Force on Aug. 29 unveiled a complete and final TA plan for the next fiscal year. The policy will require enlisted airmen and officers to get approval from their supervisors before enrolling in classes with TA, according to Kimberly Yates, chief of Air Force voluntary education.

That change could give individual leaders in the Air Force more ability to manage program costs. However, the service is not instituting new blanket restrictions on who is eligible for TA, what classes they can take, how many classes they can take, or how much the Air Force will pay. Additionally, there will be no requirement that service members pay part of the cost for classes while the Air Force pays the rest, such as a 75/25 split.

Enlisted airmen and officers would be barred from getting two of the same types of degree using TA.

“As long as it’s on their approved degree plan, they can take it, and that approved degree plan can be of their choosing,” Yates said.

Servello did not provide any details of the plan that the Navy submitted to DoD. But he did suggest that sailors seek to obtain as much college credit as possible before turning to TA, by utilizing American Council on Education credits, as well as College-Level Examination Program tests and DANTES Subject Standardized Tests. Each can offer college credit for prior training or knowledge demonstrated in tests, without requiring service members to take additional classes.

The Marine Corps’ Conlon echoed that suggestion. He said that, like the Air Force, the Corps does not plan to institute a 75/25 split, or any other cost-sharing arrangement.

“We’re definitely going to offer a tuition assistance program in 2014. We want to focus that tuition assistance program on well-qualified, good Marines,” he said.

Conlon said the service is considering changing some TA eligibility rules, but staffers haven’t yet come to any decisions.

“We’re close to the start of the next fiscal year so it’s going to have to be relatively soon,” he said.

Staff writer Jeff Schogol contributed to this report.

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