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Military students left scrambling after services halt tuition assistance programs

WIESBADEN, Germany -- The suspension of tuition assistance programs for servicemembers has sparked outrage, anxiety and despair.

Many servicemembers already enrolled in education programs are wondering how they’ll pay for their remaining courses; others wonder what the impact will be on their promotion potential with the military’s emphasis on education as a key factor in advancement.

Schools that cater to the military are reeling at the prospect of losing millions of dollars, and lawmakers are lobbying to overturn the decision by the Army, Air Force and Marines to suspend their tuition assistance programs. The Navy has no plans to curtail its program now.

In remarks at a public question and answer session last week, Vice Adm. Scott Van Buskirk, head of the Navy’s personnel command, told sailors at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek that naval officials will not cut their tuition assistance this year, according to reports from the Virginian-Pilot.

“My biggest concern is how it may affect promotability for soldiers at the higher ranks,” said Sgt. 1st Class Wesley Thompson, a Fort Gordon, Ga.-based soldier currently serving in Afghanistan who was just passed up for a promotion.

“All the individuals in my unit who did get picked up [for promotion] all have master’s degrees and significantly less leadership or deployment experiences than many who do not have master’s degrees,” Thompson said. “What kind of message does that send?”

An Active Guard Reserve recruiter, who requested anonymity to avoid the appearance of speaking for his command, said it will be tougher to recruit, especially in the low-income region of Maryland where he works.

“College benefits (for active duty troops) are the absolute main reason they do it,” he said. “It’s going to be pretty hard. You start wondering what else will be cut.”

The cuts will likely save the government about $600 million a year and could affect more than 300,000 servicemembers, based on fiscal 2012 enrollment numbers provided by the services.

The benefits have long been considered one of the unique perks of military service, particularly during a time of war.

The outcry over the discontinuation of a benefit that’s helped countless troops get their degrees without going into debt reached Congress, where lawmakers submitted legislation to restore funding.

A pair of senators, Kay Hagan, D-N.C., and Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., last week introduced an amendment to a budget bill that would have restored the military’s tuition assistance programs The amendment failed when the Senate on Monday voted to move ahead on the budget measure without any changes.

Impact on schools

The cuts will have a “devastating impact” on enrollment at universities that cater to servicemembers stationed overseas, school officials said.

University of Maryland University College senior vice president of overseas operations Allan J. Berg said last week that there’s no doubt student numbers will fall as a result of cuts to the programs, which provided up to $250 per semester credit hour and up to $4,500 a year to active-duty personnel pursuing associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

Enrollment at the school, which teaches 25,000 to 30,000 active-duty students on 75 bases in Europe and Asia, will likely drop 10 percent to 15 percent next term due to the cuts, Berg said. The academic year’s final term, over summer, would be devastated.

patton.mark@stripes.com
svan.jennifer@stripes.com
robson.seth@stripes.com

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