WASHINGTON — Congress will force military officials to reinstate tuition assistance funding for the rest of the fiscal year after troops and veterans protested the end of the education benefit.
On Wednesday, the Senate included the tuition assistance rules as part of their plan to fund federal programs through September. On Thursday, the House agreed with the proposal, and the president is expected to sign it into law in coming days.
Congress had until March 27 to pass a new budget bill or risk a government shutdown. But the tuition assistance provision was a surprise for supporters of the education benefit, since partisan infighting seemed to shelve the idea earlier in the week.
Over the last few weeks, officials from the Marine Corps, Army, Air Force and Coast Guard stopped new enrollments to their respective tuition assistance programs. Each had previously provided $250 per semester credit hour and up to $4,500 a year to servicemembers pursuing college degrees.
The new measure does not restore tuition assistance programs for the Coast Guard, since funding for that benefit comes from the Department of Homeland Security.
Service officials blamed sequestration — $85 billion in mandatory agency spending cuts this year, half coming from the military — for the sudden funding change.
But veterans advocates and lawmakers lamented the change as short-sighted and potentially devastating to student servicemembers midway through a degree program.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., one of the sponsors of the measure, said on the Senate floor Wednesday that numerous troops he has spoken with were dismayed over service officials’ decision to end the education benefit.
He also questioned whether the move was more politics than financial need, adding that plenty of less important programs could cover the funding cuts.
Under the amendment, military officials could cut tuition assistance programs for the remainder of the fiscal year, but only by the amount mandated under sequestration — about 8 percent.
It would effectively undo the services’ plans to zero out the program and use the savings elsewhere.
Roughly 300,000 servicemembers used the military tuition assistance programs last year. The 8 percent funding cut will likely lower the number of applicants eligible for the program this year.
But the congressional mandate will still allow tens of thousands of troops to continue their classes without finding new ways to pay for tuition.
Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., another amendment sponsor, said after the Senate vote that the tuition assistance program was the wrong place for military leaders to find savings.
“We cannot balance our budget on the backs of servicemembers,” she said. “The brave men and women who serve in uniform have never given up on our country, and today the Senate signaled that we won’t give up on them.”
The Veterans of Foreign Wars, whose members logged more than 12,000 calls and emails to lawmakers in support of the program, praised the move. Ryan Gallucci, deputy legislative director for the group, said the education benefit was too valuable to lose.
“As a former soldier who used tuition assistance, I’m happy to see that Congress agrees that the program is a win-win for the military,” he said. “It not only develops better leaders but boosts troop morale.”