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Cody on new TA rules: Education is the'force multiplier' for Air Force

To get the benefit, you'll need your supervisor's approval

Sep. 2, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  

Starting Oct. 1

What’s changing

■ Supervisors must approve tuition assistance requests
■ Substandard performers cannot take classes until they improve
■ No TA for two of the same types of degrees
What’s the same

■ TA up to $4,500 per year or up to $250 per semester hour
■ No restrictions on types of classes toward new type of degree
■ No changes in eligibility rules for good performers

Under new rules, both enlisted airmen and officers will need to get approval from their supervisors before the Air Force will offer tuition assistance for classes.

The rules are effective Oct. 1, according to the Air Force, which is the first service to announce its tuition assistance plan for fiscal 2014.

Requiring approval fortuition assistance allows supervisors to manage their force better, said Kimberly Yates, chief of Air Force voluntary education.

If supervisors know that mission needs will take up most of an airman’s time, they can tell that airman that now is not the right time to take classes, Yates said in an Aug. 29 interview.

The change also allows supervisors to become more involved in their airmen’s professional development, she said.

“It provides an opportunity for mentoring, so when those requests come in, it gives the opportunity for the supervisor to reach out to that airman and talk about what their goals are,” Yates said. “We also want to make sure that our airmen can be successful in the courses that they take. We don’t want them to get involved in courses they may not be able to finish because the mission is going to take so much of their time.”

For clarity’s sake, the term “supervisor” refers to whoever rates you, Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Erika Yepsen said.

“Supervisors are expected to exercise good judgment and work together with their airmen to build a degree plan that is manageable for the airman and balances the airman’s education goals with the mission,” Yepsen said in an email.

Some airmen told Air Force Times they have concerns about the new policy.

One airman stationed in the southeast U.S. is worried that supervisors could block education benefits for airmen that they want to force out of the service.

“If people view you as a bad airman, say they want you out of the Air Force, they can deny you the education that the Air Force guarantees you and that’s going to look bad on an EPR [enlisted performance report], which eventually is going to force you out of the military,” said Kim, who asked that her last name and rank not be used in the story. “If you don’t have good EPRs, you don’t get promoted.”

Another issue is that airmen may not meet school deadlines if they have to wait for their supervisors’ approval before taking classes, she said.

“If your supervisor sits on your paperwork and your college starts classes, they’re not going to just let you in,” Kim said.

But the supervisor’s role is to see if you meet the criteria for tuition assistance, not to decide if you are worthy of it, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody said.

“The supervisor can’t just arbitrarily slow roll it and do that,” Cody said in an Aug. 29 interview. “We’re professionals. That’s not what we’re about. If that happens, that supervisor has a supervisor and airmen always have a recourse.”

What the supervisor is supposed to do is make sure there is no administrative action pending against an airman for failing to meet standards before approving tuition assistance, Cody said.

“There is no provision in there for supervisors to just arbitrarily decide, ‘Hey, I don’t think you should be able to do it,’ ” he said. “There are certain conditions where airmen are not eligible to be able to use TA. That’s what a supervisor is to apply that against, not a personal feeling about something to the degree where it would seem like it’s personal, not professional.”

No TA for poor performers

While the Air Force has not changed who is eligible for tuition assistance, airmen who have been cited for substandard performance cannot take classes until the action against them has been resolved, officials said. That includes airmen who have received a referral, failed a physical fitness test or are on a control roster.

“Airmen may be in a situation where it’s just not right for them to take a class because of other constraints on them, so in order to manage better, the management controls were put on,” Yates said.

Being on a control roster means going through six months of observation, evaluation and rehabilitation, Yepsen said.

“You cannot be put on the control roster as a substitute for more appropriate administrative, judicial or nonjudicial action,” she said. “If you have been on the control roster for six consecutive months and you are not rehabilitated, more severe action must be initiated. While on the control roster, you may not be permitted to PCS, be promoted or re-enlist.”

Staff Sgt. Lisa Wright told Air Force Times that she does not think it’s fair to deny tuition assistance to airmen who are trying to rehabilitate themselves.

“They can’t better themselves if you’re going to deny them education,” said Wright, who is stationed at Hurlburt Field, Fla. “An A1C [airman first class] typically can’t afford education on an A1C’s pay so if you’re going to take that asset away from them, how are they going to better themselves on a rehabilitative tool?”

Once airmen come off the control roster, they can take classes through the normal process, Yates said. When asked if fewer airmen will be eligible for tuition assistance under the new rules, she said: “I think it’s too early tell that.”

There are no changes to how much money airmen receive in tuition assistance, Yates said. You can still get up to $4,500 per year or up to $250 per semester hour.

The Air Force has also not put any restrictions on which classes you can take, so you are still allowed to take classes that do not relate directly to your career field, she said.

“As long as it’s on their approved degree plan, they can take it, and that approved degree plan can be of their choosing,” Yates said.

The new rules prohibit airmen from getting two of the same type of degree, so if you already have one bachelor’s degree, you can’t pursue another one, she said.

“There are a couple of exceptions to that and that would be for example a Community College of the Air Force degree,” Yates said. “We also have a list of members who will change their AFSCs [Air Force Specialty Codes] and they would be eligible for a second degree.”

And if you want to take a language class, the Air Force encourages you to take one in a language for which the service has a shortage of linguists, Yates said. You can discuss which language you want to take when you set your education goals with your supervisor.

“They would be working with their education counselor when they talk about programs that they are interested in taking,” she said. “There’s also a list on the Air Force portal [website] that lets them know what the shortage languages are so they can refer to that.”

When budget cuts took effect in March, the Air Force briefly suspended tuition assistance, then Congress stepped in. It required the Air Force and other services to offer tuition assistance, but lawmakers did not provide any money to pay for it.

That meant money went to tuition assistance that could have been used to keep two squadrons in the air, Cody told airmen at Joint Base Andrews in April.

At the time, the Air Force had exhausted most of the money for tuition assistance, so it had to take from elsewhere to fund the program for the rest of the fiscal year, Cody said in his most recent interview. For fiscal 2014, the service believes it has budgeted enough money to meet demand, so there shouldn’t be any tradeoffs.

“We want that opportunity to remain available to our airmen,” he said. “We know how important it is to them. It’s important to our Air Force. It’s certainly a force multiplier when our Air Force is more educated. So that is something we valued before, we value today and we will continue to value in the future. When we suspended it earlier in the year, it wasn’t because we didn’t value it, it was because we didn’t have the money to pay for it.”

But the Air Force is budgeting less money for tuition assistance. The service initially budgeted $128 million for tuition assistance this ficsal year; however, demand was so high that it needed another $90 million to fund the program for the year, Air Force officials said.

For fiscal 2014, the Air Force has budgeted $102 million for tuition assistance, roughly half of this fiscal year’s requirement.

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