Tuition assistance is back, but the Air Force’s top enlisted airman said the estimated $90 million needed to provide the benefit could have been used to keep grounded planes flying.
Service officials have yet to figure out a way to pay 100 percent of tuition costs for qualified airmen through fiscal 2013, which ends Sept. 30, but they said they believe they will find money to cover the costs.
“At this time, the Air Force will fully fund tuition assistance for all qualified airmen under existing rules and eligibility criteria through [fiscal 2013],” said Russell Frasz, director of force development, in a statement. “We are continuing to work exact funding for this program. Most importantly, we recognize that tuition assistance is an important benefit for our airmen and the Air Force.”
The Air Force, Army, Marine Corps and Coast Guard halted the TA program after sequestration cuts took effect March 1. Members of Congress demanded the Defense Department reinstate the program, and included that requirement in legislation funding the federal government through the end of fiscal 2013. The continuing resolution, signed March 27 by President Obama, required the services to keep providing tuition assistance, but left it up to the services to figure out how to pay for it.
Previously, Air Force officials estimated they would need to divert up to $90 million from another part of the budget to pay for tuition assistance through the end of the fiscal year.
That $90 million could have kept two squadrons flying amid budget cuts that have forced the grounding of 17 air combat squadrons, said Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody, at an April 12 airman’s call at Joint Base Andrews, Md.
Cody asked the junior enlisted airmen there to envision two idle squadrons on the tarmac.
“So then we’re going to walk into the work center, right,” he said. “We’re going to walk in there and say, ‘Where’s all our civilians?’ They’re not in today because we furloughed them. So they’re not getting paid their entitlement, and they’re struggling to figure out how they’re going to pay their mortgage.
“Then we’re going to walk a little deeper into the work center and we’re going to see a young airman sitting at a computer terminal taking an online course that we’re paying for with tuition assistance. That’s national defense. Is that what we’re here to do?”
Although the decision to suspend tuition assistance was tough, it was the right one, Cody said.
“Please let’s be clear that we are here to serve, not to be served,” he said. “If you’re not right with that in your head, then you need to be thinking about what’s next for you after this enlistment.”
In addition to grounding planes April 9, the Air Force has halted all nonessential travel, curtailed investigations for renewing security clearances, canceled air shows at local bases, grounded the Thunderbirds aerial demonstration team, and canceled the 60th anniversary tour of Tops in Blue through the end of September.
The Air Force programmed $128 million for TA this fiscal year, and it is spending approximately $105 million for the 71,000 airmen who enrolled in courses by March 11, when it was suspended because of sequestration, said Air Force spokeswoman Lt. Col. Laurel Tingley. There will not be any restrictions on what courses airmen can take for the rest of the fiscal year, she said.
Air Force officials have said they expect tuition assistance to return in 2014, but the benefits are unlikely to be as substantial, Frasz said. For example, the service is considering a limit on the types of approved courses, and covering the tuition costs at 75 percent.
The service would need about $200 million to pay for tuition assistance in 2014 if no changes are made — $100 million more than requested, Cody said in a video message to airmen shortly after the program was suspended.