ARLINGTON, Va. — The Defense Department is drastically scaling back a career education benefit program for military spouses to its “original intent” after it had grown so popular that the military abruptly halted enrollment in March, the Pentagon announced Tuesday.

As of Oct. 25, the Military Spouse Career Advancement Accounts program, or MyCAA, will allow only the spouses of junior grade personnel seeking “portable career” training to enroll.

“You know that military families move around a lot,” said Clifford Stanley, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. “So we’re talking about licensures, certificates of certification for careers. It can be anything from cosmetology to dental technicians; it can be child-care providers; it could be licenses for education.”

Spouses of active-duty servicemembers in the pay grades of E1-E5, W1-W2 and O1-O2 will receive no more than $4,000 over three years for career advancement programs, a drop from the previous limit of $6,000. The education program must be completed within that timeframe, and while the servicemember is on active duty.

Spouses also will be limited to using no more than $2,000 of their allotment each year, though a waiver can be issued to spend the full $4,000, if required by a particular career program.

Perhaps the biggest change to affect military spouses is that the funds no longer will be permitted to pay for four-year or masters degrees and advanced higher education programs.

“The answer is ‘no.’ I mean, a big ‘no,’” Stanley said. “Quite frankly, that’s not sustainable.”

When MyCAA was shut down in March, roughly 44,000 of the 136,000 spouses enrolled — nearly one-third of the benefit recipients — were using the funds to pay for a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. April Cunningham.

Enrollees now will confer with a Military One Source career counselor, who must approve each request. That counselor, Stanley said, should steer spouses seeking four-year or advanced degrees toward other funding streams.

Stanley cited nongovernment funding sources from “over 1,000 corporations and businesses” offering scholarships to military families.

“Money [for four-year degrees] is left every year on the table,” he said. “You’ve got to know where to go, and that’s where Military One Source come in.”

Any MyCAA enrollee currently using funds for a four-year program will be permitted to use that money for fall enrollment, but not after October 25.

Stanley was sworn in to his post around the time MyCAA was halted and quickly heard complaints from members of Congress and senior military spouses, including Deborah Mullen, wife of Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Tuesday’s announcement of the program’s resumption, however, wasn’t met with universal approval.

“I think the fact that it’s not available for four–year degrees is a mistake,” said Wendy Poling, founder of and co-host of Navy Wife Radio, an online radio show for spouses. “We need teachers, we need social workers, we need nurses — those are all truly portable careers that help military families directly.”

Poling is using MyCAA funds to pay for a bachelor’s in business from the University of Florida. She is in her third year of an online program that she thought was perfect for military spouses. Now she doesn’t know where the money will come from after this fall.

“I’m right in the middle of a PCS move, I’ve got boxes everywhere, and it’s one more thing that I’ve got to worry about,” she said

Poling hopes military leaders understand the strain such a change places on families.“I think that the military life is an unpredictable one. So in a world of unpredictability, anyplace where leaders can give some predictability helps spouses’ stress level,” she said. “And when you change things, and when you give things and then take them away, that creates a stress on the family. And this directly ties to their financial picture on the homefront. “

Poling also objected to limiting funds only for junior spouses. “The beauty of the old program is that it didn’t matter who your husband was.”

The Pentagon said it has paid out $215 million worth of MyCAA benefits in 2010, despite new enrollees frozen out since March. They expect that number to jump to $250 million

in 2011, even with the new limitations because the program will re-open to new enrollment. It’s then expected to settle down to about $190 million per year after 2012.

“What we have now is a fiscal reality,” Stanley said. “If you’re going to do something like this, we don’t want to start it and stop it. This is something that we want to continue because it’s important to take care of our families and our spouses.”

On Capitol Hill, former Navy secretary and Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, a Democrat, said he was "pleased" the Pentagon restarted the program.

But Rep. Glenn Nye, a Democrat from Virginia Beach, blasted the new rules in a statement, saying, "I am irate that the Department of Defense would go back and take away any of these benefits.

"Military spouses throughout my district and throughout the country were promised and depend on these benefits to pay for their student bills," he said, adding, "I plan on immediately looking into possible legislative solutions to restore these critical benefits to all military spouses."

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