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SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — Pentagon officials announced Thursday that they are looking into developing a military-wide tuition assistance plan in hopes of bringing down skyrocketing costs.

There is no timeline for such a move, but educators in the Pacific said they expect an announcement soon.

Each military branch of service is providing input for review, according to a DOD news release.

“Any recommended changes must be instituted in a deliberate, thoughtful manner that maintains the integrity of a joint, uniform policy for all service members,” the release said.

The high cost of college courses as well as technological advances such as taking courses online and on compact disc have led to a record numbers of participants and in fiscal year 2010 and pushed tuition assistance costs to $542 million, the release said.

Some 300,000 servicemembers enroll in classes each year.

Officials said that the issue needs to be addressed now to preserve the benefit before it becomes unsustainable.

Currently, the DOD sets the maximum each branch can spend per servicemember each year. The branches can then dictate their own tuition assistance plan, depending on their budgetary needs, according to Ernest Poe, director of Navy College Programs for the Far East Region.

For example, the Marine Corps announced Tuesday it was slashing tuition assistance from $4,500 per Marine per fiscal year to $875, Poe said. The Air Force, Coast Guard and Army offer $4,500, while the Navy provides $4,000 for sailor’s tuition.

“We don’t know what the cuts are going to be for the Navy,” Poe said. “We’re waiting to see what the Department of Defense will mandate.”

Educators said even though cuts to the program across the board are most likely imminent, servicemembers who want an education will still have that opportunity, either through tuition assistance, loans, federal grants, or other programs.

“The fact is, we all know what the government situation is in terms of money,” said David Freeman, who heads the Navy College in Sasebo and advises sailors on their educational options. “We’ve been telling them there are other options.”

Freeman said that about 30 percent of the sailors at the small base in Sasebo use tuition assistance. Should cuts come to the program, sailors can use the GI Bill while on active duty, federal grants such as the Pell Grant, or apply for student loans. Sailors on ships out at sea are eligible for free classes through the Program for Afloat College Education, he said.

Poe said that he welcomes the cuts. He said it will force sailors to be more thoughtful in their educational planning and will also force schools to offer competitive pricing for a quality product to compete for the shrinking funds.

“They’re going to further their education [regardless of the cuts],” Poe said. “But it will cause servicemembers to look at institutions more carefully and choose an institution that is cost effective.”

For more information on educational issues, from tuition assistance and financial aid to colleges and universities, see the Voluntary Education Program portal at http://apps.mhf.dod.mil/voled.

burkem@pstripes.osd.mil

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Matthew M. Burke has been reporting from Okinawa for Stars and Stripes since 2014. The Massachusetts native and UMass Amherst alumnus previously covered Sasebo Naval Base and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, for the newspaper. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, Cape Cod Times and other publications.
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