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Tuition aid safe for now, but may not stay free

Mar. 25, 2013 - 07:55AM   |  

In the battle over tuition assistance benefits, the Navy was the lone service to keep it intact despite incoming budget cuts.

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In the battle over tuition assistance benefits, the Navy was the lone service to keep it intact despite incoming budget cuts.

Now Congress has mandated the other branches to restore the benefit, at least through the fiscal year.

But this good news has a catch. Under new rules proposed by Navy leadership, sailors will have to chip in a percentage of tuition costs in order to participate.

The service has asked the Defense Department for permission to fund just 75 percent of class tuition and require the sailor to pick up the remaining 25 percent, Navy sources said. These changes were still pending DoD approval as of late last week.

Assuming the change is approved, it’s expected sailors will have to pay their portion up front — when registering for the class.

Having sailors pay a portion of the bill isn’t unheard of and, in fact, was how the program worked prior to fiscal 2000, when the Navy switched from funding 75 percent of the DoD’s $4,500 limit to fully funding the current $4,000 and 16 credit maximum.

Sailors already taking classes, or those who had approval for classes, would be exempt — this time — from the new rules, sources said.

What’s unclear is when the new rules will go into effect and whether the Navy will institute any grace period. As of March 22, sailors signing up for TA were still eligible for the full 100 percent.

“Navy continues to demonstrate our commitment to preserving a tuition assistance program that assists sailors in achieving their education goals,” said Cmdr. Kathy Kesler, spokeswoman for the chief of naval personnel. “We are reviewing congressional action on this issue and will determine any subsequent necessary adjustments to our TA program based on final legislation and any [DoD] guidance.”

The existing program offers $250 per credit hour for up to 16 credits per year, for a maximum annual benefit of $4,000. That’s less than the Army, Air Force and Marines, who fund up to the DoD maximum of $4,500 a year. The maximum benefit is not expected to change.

Sources say the service won’t try to tighten up who is eligible for the program. The Navy already manages it quite heavily with strict rules and procedures. Because junior sailors are more likely to flunk out, neither enlisted members nor officers can use TA during the first year at their initial permanent duty station.

In addition, sailors must have passed their most recent advancement exam as well as their latest physical fitness assessment; have no record of nonjudicial punishment in the last six months; and must currently be recommended for promotion or advancement.

The service also requires that before any classes are funded, the sailor must have a “degree plan” on file with their local Navy College Office or the Navy-wide Virtual Education Center, though sailors can change it at any time to reflect updated education goals.

The tightened rules could be an explanation why TA participation has dropped from nearly 59,000 sailors, officers and civilians in 2009 to a little more than 48,000 in 2012, according to data provided by the Defense Department.

The Navy’s budget for tuition assistance has gradually dropped over the past few years, from nearly $100 million in 2009 down to $84 million in fiscal 2012.

And if the Navy’s personnel chief, Vice Adm. Scott Van Buskirk, has his way, funding will hold at that level.

“This year, we’re targeted to spend about 84 million total,” he told Congress in a March 13 hearing. “At this point, we’ve spent a little over about $40 million.”

Van Buskirk said so far this year, 27,000 people have taken advantage of the program.

The Navy manages its program quarterly, unlike the other services. By using a quarterly cap, it helps ensure the service stays close to its funding levels and doesn’t run out before the year’s end.

While many grumbled over the tightened TA rules in the past, service leaders say that’s why the Navy has been able to keep it this long — and why leaders were reluctant to follow the other services in suspending it.

And if going back to the future and charging sailors a percentage is what’s necessary to keep the program running, Navy officials said it is the right thing to do.

“I would support making adjustments to tuition assistance so that we can still keep tuition assistance in place,” said Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (AW/NAC) Mike Stevens in an interview with Navy Times.

Looking at options

Under the 2013 federal spending bill passed on March 21, the Air Force, Army and Marine Corps must restart their TA programs. 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 Navy’s idea for a 75/25 split is gaining traction with some of the other services. Putting some “skin in the game” gives troops more of a stake in the outcome, serving as an incentive to complete their courses.

Jim Sweizer, former chief of voluntary education for the Air Force, said the services would likely run out of funds for TA this year if they simply restart the program without new restrictions.

“The simplest way to do it is to ... control the number of courses an individual is allowed to take each term. That would be a quick and effective way to limit a run on the bank, so to speak,” said Sweizer, now vice president of military programs at American Military University, the country’s top TA school in fiscal 2011. He was not speaking on behalf of the school.

Sweizer said having troops pay part of the costs may be the most viable long-term option to preserve the program. “That [model] was effective for four decades,” he said. “It’s tried and true.”

Jeff Cropsey, who worked for four decades in education for DoD and various services, said another possibility might be to fund only undergraduate courses.

“There’s all sorts of equations they could do,” said Cropsey, who works at Grantham University but, like Sweizer, was not speaking on the school’s behalf.

The bill that ordered TA to be revived, HR 933, passed the Senate on March 20 and the House on March 21, and is expected to be signed by President Obama by March 27 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.

The Coast Guard

The Coast Guard is “working to establish a timeline for reinstatement” of TA, officials said in a press release.

The program comes under the purview of Rear Adm. Daniel Neptun, assistant commandant for human resources. The Coast Guard averaged about 10,000 TA enrollees per year for the past three years and expects to serve around the same this year.

To date, about 7,000 Coast Guard personnel have participated in TA this fiscal year.

The service shut down its TA program March 9. At the time, the Coast Guard had spent more than $11 million in the current fiscal year. Total spending has averaged about $20 million a year for the last three years.

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 cosponsor, noted that 100,000 people used TA in 2011, and 50,000 received a diploma, certificate or license, showing its value.

Staff writers Gidget Fuentes, Jim Tice, Antonieta Rico and George Altman contributed to this story.

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