(Illustration by John Harman/Staff)
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If the Pentagon allows it, should the Navy reimburse sailors who had their tuition-assistance requests rejected because of the government shutdown? Tells us why or why not at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About 1,200 sailors had their tuition assistance requests rejected during the October government shutdown. When Navy officials went to the Defense Department asking whether sailors who’d been turned down could be reimbursed if they enrolled in college classes anyway, DoD said no, citing an instruction requiring prior approval for all TA payments.
But a DoD response to Navy Times questions on Friday appears to contradict that conclusion, and surprised Navy personnel officials now are considering whether up to 1,200 sailors could receive about $1.2 million in repayments.
“The Office of the Secretary of Defense has no plans to direct the services to retroactively pay students who took classes,” DoD spokeswoman Joy Crabaugh said Friday. “Any decision to do so will be made at the individual service level.”
Crabaugh said she wasn’t aware of prior DoD-Navy discussions on the topic and couldn’t comment on whether DoD had changed its policy regarding those whose applications were rejected.
Most denials came when sailors applied for benefits Oct. 1-16 and had classes scheduled to start during that time — no funds were available, and no workers were on hand to approve the requests.
Navy officials who were aware of prior DoD discussions say the Friday statement marks a reversal.
“It is too early to determine if the policy change will allow us to offer waivers to adversely impacted sailors who have already obligated to pay for classes,” a Navy official said. “[Reimbursement] is an option, based on previous discussions, that we did not believe was open to us.”
Until the shutdown, the Navy hadn’t refused tuition assistance benefits since 2010, when the service began using a quarterly budget for its TA funds, preventing once-a-year runs on the system.
Who lost out, and why
The rejected sailors fall into one of two groups:
■ Those who applied Oct. 1-16 for TA and had a class that began between Oct. 1-16.
■ Those who applied before the shutdown for a class that began during that period, but who had already maxed out their fiscal 2013 TA and would’ve needed to use FY ’14 benefits.
Those groups total 1,200 sailors, the Navy said, but the service doesn’t know how many of those sailors signed up for classes anyway and thus could be eligible for tuition reimbursement.
Sailors who applied in September for that same class would’ve been approved, because their TA request would’ve been processed using fiscal 2013 money, officials said.
Sailors who applied for TA during the shutdown for classes that began after the shutdown also have been approved, officials said.
Navy personnel officials say sailors are warned in training prior to getting TA eligibility that they need prior approval for all classes before obligating themselves to the class. Also, program guidance available on the Navy College Program website states that up-front TA money “is not provided for courses if the institution’s drop-add period or late registration date has passed.”
DoD Instruction 1322.25, dated March 15, 2011, states: “If an eligible Service member decides to use TA, educational institutions will enroll him or her only after the TA is approved by the individual’s Service. Service members will be solely responsible for all tuition costs without this prior approval.”
Dr. Jonathan Woods, voluntary eduction adviser to the chief of naval personnel, said the Navy “spoke with cognizant authority at the Office of the Secretary of Defense and confirmed that uniform adherence to this instruction by all Services was expected.”
DoD’s Friday statements to Navy Times appear to contradict this, allowing for the possibility of some repayment by the services.
Why take applications?
Though the Navy couldn’t approve TA requests made during the shutdown, the service kept its voluntary education website open for applications because it didn’t have the ability to shut down that function without taking the whole site offline, officials said.
“All of these functions serve as educational planning tools — to deny sailors access to the system, denies them access to these other educational tools,” Woods said. “Navy is currently reviewing the feasibility of software changes that would allow selective shutdown of application tools.”
Sailors were notified in an Oct. 7 update to the Navy’s official blog that tuition assistance requests would be accepted during the shutdown, but that “until funds are appropriated by Congress and the President signs into law, tuition assistance cannot be authorized.”
Navy personnel officials acknowledge that one of the lessons learned from this situation will be to better communicate any possible consequences to sailors in the future.
Other services treated the shutdown differently. The Army, for example, ran an automated program on its GoArmyEd website that rejected all tuition assistance requests involving classes starting that day. An email informed soldiers that they “should not begin any classes until funding is approved.”
The Air Force shut down the TA application portion of its Air Force Virtual Education Center and warned airmen in an early October news release that “financial decisions made without an approved [TA] form will be the responsibility of the Airman.”■