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Enrollment drops after Marines' tuition assistance restrictions take effect

SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — The number of Marines receiving tuition assistance has decreased drastically this fiscal year, signaling that new eligibility restrictions could have far-reaching impact on the popular subsidized college course program.

For the first quarter of fiscal 2014 — which ended Dec. 31 — there were 3,341 enlisted Marines and 282 officers in the program, Marine Corps officials said. That is about a 75 percent decrease from the number of Marines enrolled in the first quarter of fiscal 2013 and a 65 percent decrease from the first quarter of fiscal 2012. The 13,502 Marines participated in the first quarter of fiscal 2013 accounted for nearly half of the 28,662 Marines that enrolled that year.

Marine officials cautioned that it was too soon to blame the drop on the new restrictions that went into effect in October 2013, and said that the policy changes were not driven by cost savings.

“It is difficult to speculate at this time because the drop could be the cause of a variety of reasons, such as government shutdown and deployment,” said Marine and Family Programs Division’s Shawn Conlon. “The primary purpose of the (change) was policy driven, to help Marines focus and master their Marine Corps profession. It was not spending driven and no particular savings target or goal was expected.”

The drastic decrease in Marine enrollment could save the Corps and the Defense Department tens of millions of dollars, according to calculations made by Stars and Stripes using the cost per credit hour, average course load and the drop in enrollment.

The Marine Corps announced changes and eligibility restrictions to its program in September. At the time, they were the most drastic changes to come from the four service branches facing a looming budget battle in Congress, stinging wounds caused by sequestration and the potential for a government shutdown adding to the fiscal uncertainty.

The changes were supposed to go into effect Oct. 1, 2013, but were delayed by the government shutdown, which kept the program shuttered until Oct. 21.

Marines are barred from applying for tuition assistance if they are in their first two years of service, are ineligible for promotion or had not completed certain military training courses. First-time applicants were limited to a single course unless the servicemember had an associate’s degree or 60 academic credits and a minimum grade point average of 2.5.

Modifications were also made to the way funds were managed. Funds are now allocated quarterly.

In the past few years, the Corps has found itself in a precarious situation regarding the popular benefit. Between fiscal 2009 and 2013, tuition assistance was slashed by $19 million. Over the same period, the number of Marines participating climbed by 2,232.

The total budget for Marine Corps tuition assistance in fiscal 2014 is $44 million, Conlon said. As of Nov. 15, $3.5 million had been spent, disbursed among installations worldwide.

On Okinawa, home to 19,000 U.S. Marines, those seeking tuition assistance have even further restrictions to make sure the funds are stretched as far as possible, according to a Marine Corps Installations Pacific spokesman. Marines are only being authorized to take a single course. If a Marine is near the completion of a degree program, he or she can submit an official degree completion plan for review and consideration of up to two courses.

“Due to cuts in tuition assistance funds, it is paramount that tuition assistance be authorized in a fiscally responsible manner,” Staff Sgt. Kenneth Lewis said in a statement to Stars and Stripes. “Determination of credit hours per student will be established by the local Education Services Officer per military installation.”

Conlon said that the service had not tracked Marines’ response to the new policy.

The Marines are not alone in making changes to tuition assistance. Starting Jan. 1, the Army also instituted eligibility restrictions and caps on semester hours.

Air Force officials have made some changes to tuition assistance policy as well, such as requiring airmen to get approval from supervisors for requests for aid and not allowing airmen to purpose a degree at the level of one they already hold.

The Navy has not made changes for fiscal 2014, Navy officials said.

burke.matt@stripes.com

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