Military halts popular tuition assistance to save money

martha.quillin@newsobserver.comMarch 13, 2013 

George Sendelbach II joined the N.C. National Guard at age 17 with his education in mind; he figured the military would help make him mature enough to succeed in college and help him pay for it.

Sendelbach, 23 and still in the Guard, is now a year away from a bachelor’s degree in criminology from N.C. State University. But he’s not sure how he’ll pay for the rest of his courses since the Army announced last week it had suspended the Tuition Assistance Program that Sendelbach and about 200,000 other soldiers were using to pay for school.

The Marine Corps and Air Force also have halted their tuition assistance programs, and the Navy is considering doing the same, as the military tries to find ways to make cost cuts required by sequestration and other budget constraints.

News of the announcement traveled quickly through military communities, and constituents began calling their representatives in Washington to complain. Politicians had assured the public that service members like Sendelbach would be protected as much as possible from sequester cuts.

“It’s been a huge help,” said Sendelbach, who began taking courses with money from the program as soon as he got back from Iraq with the Guard’s 30th Heavy Brigade Combat Team in 2010. He spent two years taking classes at Wake Technical Community College – easily affordable under the program, which pays up to $250 per semester hour, $4,500 per year – before transferring last fall to NCSU.

All the while, he has continued his once-a-month training with the Guard, and he also joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at NCSU. When he graduates and joins the Army full time, he’ll receive a commission as a 2nd lieutenant. He plans to stay in the service at least five years and hopes to work in military intelligence.

In addition to military schools where they can get training specific to their jobs, service members can use their off-duty hours to add to their professional expertise or study subjects of personal interest.

Victim of sequestration

The Tuition Assistance Program is one of many ways service members can advance their education while still in service, and it’s been popular. In fiscal 2012, 201,000 soldiers used the Army’s program, taking 620,000 courses that cost the service $373 million. The money paid for GEDs, associate’s degrees, and undergraduate and graduate degrees, though not all courses were part of degree programs.

On a Defense Department news site, Lt. Col. Tom Alexander, spokesman for the Army’s personnel chief, said the Army suspended the program because of the combined effects of the sequestration cuts and ongoing budget uncertainty in Congress. “The Army understands the impacts of this action and will re-evaluate should the budgetary situation improve,” Alexander said.

The Tuition Assistance Program, created in 2002, is treated as a benefit. Eligibility rules can be changed and funding levels raised or lowered. Service members who fail a class paid for under the program have to repay the cost. All service members can apply for the money, but it’s not promised to everyone.

By comparison, the GI Bill, which also pays for education and housing and is administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs, is more of an entitlement, due all members who meet certain service requirements. The Post 9/11 GI Bill provides up to 36 months of benefits, generally for up to 15 years following a service member’s release from active duty. A soldier who doesn’t use GI Bill benefits can transfer them to a qualifying family member.

The Tuition Assistance Program is only available to members while they’re serving, but soldiers who use it also are eligible for GI Bill benefits later.

Hagan tries to save program

On Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, a North Carolina Democrat, wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel saying she feared that cutting this source of educational funds for troops would weaken the fighting forces and make it harder for service members to find work when they get out of the military.

“I recognize that Congress’ inability to address our long-term fiscal challenges has forced the Department to make many difficult budget decisions,” Hagan wrote. “However, senior defense officials have continually discussed the dangers of creating a hollow force. I agree that we should not hollow out our most critical asset – the brave men and women serving in this nation. Completely suspending this program, rather than simply reducing its funding by an amount proportionate to the cuts mandated by sequestration, is an alarming decision.”

Wednesday afternoon, Hagan and Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma introduced an amendment to the Senate’s continuing resolution bill that would reinstate the Tuition Assistance Program.

Thousands of service members and supporters had signed a petition on www.change.org by late Wednesday asking that the program be reinstated.

Rush at Fayetteville Tech

When he heard last Friday that the Army’s program would be suspended, David Brand, vice president of academic and student services at Fayetteville Technical Community College, started scrambling to see if he could register the 278 soldiers from Fort Bragg expected to start classes on campus later this month.

“I was hustling,” Brand said, because all students enrolled in classes under the program at 5 p.m. that day would still get their money. But the Army sent out a clarification later that day saying the suspension was effective immediately.

Since the fall of 2010, nearly 4,500 Fort Bragg soldiers have gone through an associate’s degree program Brand helped develop that gives soldiers college credit for their military courses and work experience. The program is especially popular with Special Forces soldiers, who are required to take courses at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center on post.

Those and hundreds of other soldier-students take classes at Fayetteville Tech paid for through the Tuition Assistance Program, where a semester-hour costs about $69.

Most of those students, Brand said, probably still will be able to afford their classes, either by paying out-of-pocket or by applying for scholarships or financial aid, or using their GI Bills if necessary.

“We’re going to do everything we can to help them finish,” Brand said. “I want them all to be successful.”

McClatchy Washington bureau reporter Renee Schoof contributed to this article.

Quillin: 919-829-8989

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