Public outcry revives tuition assistance for troops
At the start of 2013, tuition assistance for servicemembers seemed like a mainstay of military benefits, but the popular program became a causality of the budget battles in Washington, and it was only public outcry that got it restored.
The Army suspended tuition assistance March 8, citing sequestration and budgetary pressures, following a similar move affecting the Marine Corps. The Air Force followed suit a few days later. Only the Navy kept its program going.
Each service runs its own program, but generally tuition assistance provides eligible servicemembers up to $4,500 per fiscal year, and a maximum of $250 per semester credit hour to cover tuition and allowable fees for servicemembers pursuing associate’s bachelor’s or master’s degrees. Last year, more than 286,000 servicemembers took advantage of the programs, according to the Defense Department.
The abrupt end to tuition assistance sparked outrage and anxiety throughout the military community as those enrolled in education programs wondered how they would pay for remaining classes. Others worried their promotion potential could be affected with the military’s emphasis on education as a key factor for advancement. A petition on the ‘We the People’ section of WhiteHouse.gov accumulated more than 100,000 signatures within 10 days — warranting a response from the White House.
Before the end of March, Congress had adopted a measure to restore tuition assistance, but it was the second week in April before it was restored.
Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., a sponsor of the bill, said tuition assistance was the wrong place for military leaders to find savings. “We cannot balance our budget on the backs of servicemembers,” she said.
Then, as the fiscal year drew to a close at the end of September and a government shutdown loomed because Congress was unable to agree on a budget for Fiscal 2014, tuition assistance was again on the block.
To the confusion of many servicemembers, every service suddenly stopped processing applications until a continuing resolution — a stopgap spending measure — or a budget to fund the government for fiscal year 2014 was passed.
Adding to the uncertainty, education offices were closed as a result of the shutdown leaving the services scrambling to get the word out.
The programs were once again restored when the 16-day government shutdown ended, but this time leaving questions about the future of the program. At an all-hands call in Bahrain in November, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, told concerned sailors the program was “solid” for next year. However, he left the door open for the future possible curtailment of the 100 percent assistance the program currently provides.
Other branches are already tightening their programs. In November, the Marine Corps added several restrictions limiting the number of eligible personnel. Officials announced Marines with less than two years of service, ineligible for promotion, or if they have not completed certain military training may not apply.
In early December, the Army also announced restrictions. Starting Jan. 1, soldiers will be limited to 16 semester hours per fiscal year and 130 total credit hours. The Army also will enforce stricter eligibility rules such as requiring soldiers to complete one year of service following their initial training before they can apply.
Air Force officials have also changed eligibility requirements in recent months by tying in physical fitness and behavioral standards, and giving supervisors greater authority to deny applicants.