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Tuition aid will return, but questions remain

Mar. 25, 2013 - 06:13AM   |  
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Tuition assistance has been rescued by Congress after thousands of troops complained when most of the services suspended the popular education benefit as a cost-cutting move.

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Tuition assistance has been rescued by Congress after thousands of troops complained when most of the services suspended the popular education benefit as a cost-cutting move.

Under the 2013 federal spending bill passed March 21, the Marine Corps, Air Force and Army must restart their TA programs; the Navy, which never closed its program, is prohibited from dropping its benefits. TA must keep running through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.

The legislation ordering TA to be reinstated covered only the Defense Department, according to congressional staffers. The Coast Guard, which also suspended its program, comes under the Homeland Security Department. However, Coast Guard officials said March 22 they will also revive TA through the rest of the fiscal year.

The services are also indicating that TA will be available in fiscal 2014. But it could return in much different form than what today’s troops are used to.

Eligibility rules may be tightened to stretch the available funding. The program’s basic structure also may change. The Navy is pushing to return the program to its pre-2000 model, under which the services paid 75 percent of tuition and troops kicked in the other 25 percent.

The rationale behind that idea, which seems to be gaining traction with some of the other services, is that forcing troops to put some “skin in the game” gives them more of a stake in the outcome, serving as an incentive to complete their courses.

The bill that ordered TA to be revived, HR 933, passed the Senate on March 20 and the House on March 21. It is expected to be signed by President Obama by Wednesday because its primary purpose is to avert a government shutdown on that date.

Congress has not provided the Pentagon with the $250 million to $300 million the services planned to save by cutting off TA for the rest of this fiscal year, and the services may make modest cuts in the remaining funding for this year’s TA program as part of broader, across-the-board cuts in the Pentagon budget. That reduction is expected to be about 9 percent.

Exactly when the program will return, and in what form, is not clear. Navy Cmdr. Leslie Hull-Ryde, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said the legislation will “require the services to make difficult and very thoughtful decisions on how to fund tuition assistance” for the rest of this fiscal year “without impacting readiness.”

“A Marine administrative message … on tuition assistance will be published which will include an effective date” for relaunching the program, Maj. Shawn Haney, a manpower and reserve affairs spokeswoman in Quantico, Va., said March 21.

Until then, TA requests will not be processed. “There’s not a switch we can turn on right now,” Haney said.

As of March 4, when the Corps suspended its program, it had paid out or obligated about $28 million of the $47 million it had budgeted for TA in fiscal 2013, which ends Sept. 30. That covered 14,280 Marines enrolled in courses as of March 4.

The sequestration cuts may further reduce remaining funding by as much as $4.4 million.

Marines must get TA authorized for each class in which they enroll, and they can find help at their local voluntary education service center.

In fiscal 2012, some 29,507 Marines used TA, with 271 earning diplomas, certificates or licensures, according to Marine Corps data.

Two Senate Armed Services Committee members — Sens. James Inhofe, R-Okla., and Kay Hagan, D-N.C. — are largely responsible for saving TA, urging Senate colleagues to accept an amendment to undo this one consequence of budget cuts even as dozens of proposals to protect other programs were blocked.

Inhofe, ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee and chief sponsor of the TA resolution, said he heard from many “alarmed” troops on the issue.

Hagan, who chairs the committee’s emerging threats panel and is a co-sponsor of the amendment, noted that 100,000 people used TA in 2011, reflecting the popularity of the program, and 50,000 received a diploma, certificate or license, showing its value.

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