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Military tuition assistance restored, but timing is uncertain

An airman walks past signs in an on-base shopping arcade advertising university classes due to start at Yokota Air Base, Japan, March 11, 2013.

WASHINGTON — The military’s tuition assistance programs will resume soon, but no one knows when.

Last week, Congress rolled back plans to halt all new enrollments to the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps tuition assistance programs, after veterans groups and military advocates protested the budget-saving moves.

The measure, included in the new appropriations bill to fund government operations through October, was signed into law Tuesday by the president.

But military officials said they still haven’t restarted the education benefit enrollments, because they are trying to decipher what the new budget bill requires and where additional cuts will come from.

Pentagon spokesman George Little said that the department “will comply with the recently enacted legislation” but details on when the programs will resume have not been finalized.

Officials from the service branches met early Wednesday with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s staff to discuss the benefit. The new budget bill does not erase almost $43 billion in sequestration defense spending cuts for this fiscal year, but does give Pentagon planners some more flexibility in implementing them.

Representatives from the services said they hope to make final decisions on the education benefit in the next few days.

“What we know definitively is that right now, it’s suspended,” said Air Force spokeswoman Maj. Cristin Marposon. “It’s being worked aggressively, and as soon as we have the way ahead, it will be announced.”

Army and Marine Corps officials said they hope to release new guidance on the programs soon. But, until then, all new enrollments are on hold.

Roughly 300,000 servicemembers used the military tuition assistance programs last year. The programs have provided $250 per semester credit hour and up to $4,500 a year to servicemembers pursuing college degrees.

Students already enrolled in classes should not see any disruption in their funding.

Supporters of the tuition assistance programs complained the cuts could have sent some student servicemembers into deep debt to finish degree programs they thought would be covered.

Marine Sgt. John Diller, a combat instructor at the School of Infantry-West at Camp Pendleton, Calif., has been using tuition assistance to take two classes each semester, working toward an associate’s degree. He said he thought cutting the program was reasonable for the Marine Corps because of the ongoing budget pressures, but that he would have to stop taking classes.

“I’m not going to put it on credit and I’m not going to take out a loan,” he said.

Tuition assistance isn’t the only issue in flux following the new budget bill. Defense officials had planned on sending out furlough notices to defense civilian employees last week, but delayed decisions on that until next month because of the new budget bill.

Reporters Jennifer Hlad and Chris Carroll contributed to this story.

shane.leo@stripes.com
Twitter: @LeoShane

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