A Marine works on a college homework assignment at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan. The Corps will spend $44 million on tuition assistance in fiscal 2014, Marine officials say. (Cpl. Ned Johnson / Marine Corps)
After months of reduced funds and uncertainty about the future, a robust Tuition Assistance Program is back, according to Marine officials. Within weeks, millions more dollars will become available to help Marines pay for school.
“Hopefully, now we have sufficient funding for the remainder of the year so that every Marine who wants can take advantage of the benefit,” said Shawn P. Conlon, head of the Personal and Professional Development Branch within the Marine and Family Readiness Division at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.
Due to ongoing budget uncertainty relating to sequestration, and the delay in passing a federal budget, just $3.5 million — less than a third of the money that had been expected — was available for tuition assistance during each of the first two quarters of fiscal 2014, which began Oct. 1. Those funds dried up within about two weeks of the start of each quarter, forcing many Marines to pay for school entirely out of pocket or delay taking a course.
But with the president’s signing of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014 on Jan. 18, which includes funding for all Defense Department programs, more than $12 million flowed into the TA pipeline just for the second quarter alone.
In all, approximately $44 million will go to the Marine Corps’ TA program in fiscal 2014 which ends Sept. 30. That includes $3.5 million for the first quarter, $15.5 million for the second quarter, $13 million in the third quarter and $12 million in the fourth quarter.
Conlon hopes that will be enough to provide tuition assistance to about 26,000 Marines, including 1,000 officers, the same number of Marines who took advantage of the program last year. Ultimately, it is difficult to predict how many will do so, Conlon said. Last year was atypical because the tuition payments were suspended for a number of months. This year has also been abnormal because of the initial delay in the assistance program, which didn’t begin until late October due to the government shutdown.
An end to confusion
It’s been a rocky 12 months for Marines who use the assistance to pursue a college degree.
In response to sequestration and military-wide budget cuts that began in fiscal 2013, the Marine Corps and other services canceled TA programs in March. But after a barrage of complaints from service members and their families, Congress ordered the services to reinstate the programs in April.
Right before the start of fiscal 2014, the Corps toughened its requirements to qualify for TA, bringing them more closely in line with the Navy, which overhauled its own program several years ago. Marines must now have at least 24 months time-in-service before using TA. First-time students can only receive assistance for one course while they establish an academic track record.
Funds approved for classes that are later failed will count toward the $4,500 annual maximum and assistance will only be approved for a single course following a semester in which a Marine’s grade-point average falls below 2.5, he or she receives a “D” or voluntarily withdraws from a course.
Despite the temporary cancellation of the program and the tougher requirements, Defense Department Comptroller Robert Hale told reporters near the start of this fiscal yearthat there are no plans to cut back TA substantially.
With the Marine Corps’ entire $44 million request secured, Marines applying for TA are likely to receive $250 per course. That level of funding will still leave many Marines with an outstanding tuition balance. While many schools specializing in distance education for military members now create class fees that align closely with the tuition assistance program’s maximum payment per course, others are considerably more expensive.
“The average class at the average school is about three semester hours and costs about $750,” Conlon said.
Some Marines will therefore have to rely on other types of funding or pay the difference out of pocket.
Conlon strongly encourages Marines who are figuring out how to finance their education to visit their local base education staff, who can walk them through the wide variety of funding options, including scholarships, grants, loans and Montgomery or Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits.