As a safeguard against the buckling U.S. economy, the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society recently changed its overseas Spouse Tuition Assistance Program from grant-based assistance to interest-free loans.

Officials said the organization’s education funding — financed through interest accrued from its investment holdings — slid under the current economic downturn.

"We’ve taken a hit," said Melissa Thurber, Spouse Tuition Assistance Program chairwoman for Okinawa. "So instead of handing out money for grants, we’re being more responsible about the money we can give."

The change is in place at all overseas Navy-Marine Corps Relief Societies that offer the program, though application dates vary, officials said.

The relief society is a private, nonprofit organization that has been providing financial, educational and social assistance to servicemembers and their families for more than 100 years. Funding for its programs comes from donations, financial investments and the society’s Thrift Shop profits.

Under the new program, qualified active-duty spouses of sailors and Marines living overseas can receive up to $3,000 in interest-free loans for each year of their studies.

Qualified applicants must be enrolled in a part- or full-time accredited program, including online schooling. Some certification programs also apply, Thurber said.

Loans must be repaid within two years after receipt of the money.

Students now can be eligible to receive larger loans with fewer restrictions, said Andrea Tatayon, director for the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society’s Okinawa and Iwakuni branches.

Previously, society branches awarded need-based grants — no more than $2,000 a year — to undergraduate and graduate spouses.

Under the grant program, it was harder for applicants to qualify, Tatayon said.

A sufficient savings account or other indicators that an applicant was able to pay for school was usually a red flag that an applicant would be denied, Tatayon said.

Last year, the Okinawa and Iwakuni branches provided more than $81,000 in program grants to 262 spouses, Tatayon said.

The loan program should help boost qualified applicant numbers, she said.

"It may be a little disappointing to some, but it’s better in the long run because there is more money, you don’t have to pay back in interest, and we’re able to give more money and assist a wider array of people," Tatayon said.

Applicants still must submit a budget that includes monthly expenses and a debt-to-spending ratio analysis, as well as participate in an interview to determine eligibility and level of assistance.

Students are eligible to receive a loan as long as their current indebtedness to a relief society doesn’t exceed $6,000.

Undergraduate recipients must maintain a C average or higher, and graduate students must maintain a B average or higher to maintain their loans, Tatayon said.

Mary Buhler, director at the Sasebo branch, said at least two applicants already have been processed, and employees are lining up appointments for the next couple of weeks.

"We’ve had some mixed feelings about it, but honestly, I feel it’s going to work out better," she said.

The Okinawa branch will begin accepting applications Jan. 15, Tatayon said. The Iwakuni branch is expected to start accepting applications by the end of February, said staff member Kim Lumpkin.

To find out more about the program and office locations, visit

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