The Air Force is cutting the maximum amount of money airmen can receive in tuition assistance in fiscal 2021, from $4,500 to $3,750.
In a Tuesday statement, the Air Force said it saw a spike this spring in service members seeking the military’s help paying for them to go to college. The Air Force believes that jump was caused by the coronavirus pandemic, and airmen increasingly pursuing educational opportunities during stay-at-home orders.
As of Sept. 24, a total of 80,430 service members had used the Air Force’s tuition assistance program — a key recruitment and retention perquisite for the military — in fiscal 2020, the service said. The Air Force expects a similar turnout in 2021, also due to the ongoing pandemic.
But the unexpected swell in airmen seeking tuition assistance caused the Air Force to run through the $163.4 million it had programmed for 2020 by Aug. 20. That total amount available for the program will remain unchanged in 2021.
“While usage by our airmen and space professionals is fantastic, and we’re encouraged by the number working on their degrees, we need to make sure the benefit is accessible to as many of our service members as possible each year,” said Air Force personnel chief Lt. Gen. Brian T. Kelly in the Tuesday release.
“In 2013, under sequestration, tuition assistance was suspended for some time and our service members were negatively impacted. As we go forward and budgets get tight, we want to prevent that from happening again and we made hard decisions in order to keep this program viable and accessible to our force.”
The Air Force was able to get $17.6 million in additional funding, which enabled it to approve all airmen’s funding requests in 2020, but it wants to avoid that this year. That’s why it’s putting the stricter annual caps in place, both for undergraduate and graduate courses, the service said.
The Air Force also said it is seeing an increase in the number of college courses taken, and an increase in how much courses cost.
The Air Force is not changing the credit-hour limits, which will remain at $250 per semester hour, and $166.66 per quarter hour, the release said.
But the Air Force will leave the door cracked to grant waivers to the annual caps to some service members with unique circumstances, the release said. Those circumstances could include service members whose degree program requires a lab class, exceeding the $3,750 annual limit by one semester hour or two quarter hours, or service members who are working on a unique degree deadline.
“Tuition assistance aids in the development of a highly educated and skilled military force,” Kelly said. “By making these adjustments, we ensure this key benefit continues for all airmen and space professionals.”
If the Air Force runs out of money before the fiscal year ends, the release said, service members whose applications were not approved will have to wait until fiscal 2022 begins.
Airmen and members of the Space Force can apply for tuition assistance up to 45 days before the day their class is to start, the release said, using the Air Force Virtual Education Center online platform.
But the number of service members expected to use the Air Force’s tuition assistance in 2020 and 2021 is still less than in fiscal 2019, when 84,149 service members took part.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.