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New rules would make sailors pay 25% of off-duty tuition costs

Mar. 15, 2014 - 01:24PM   |  
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You’re likely to start footing more of the bill for your off-duty college classes starting this fall.

The Navy is developing a proposal for sailors to pay for 25 percent of their tuition costs under changes to tuition assistance eligibility that would begin in fiscal 2015.

The primary reason for the rule change is a proposed $24 million cut in the Navy’s tuition assistance budget in fiscal 2015, but officials say sailors fronting more money may be more likely to finish their degrees. They also want to encourage sailors to use their Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits.

In fiscal 2014, the Navy expects to spend $86 million, roughly the same as spent in fiscal 2013. But if approved, the Navy’s TA budget would drop in fiscal 2015 to just $65 million.

The Navy now pays 100 percent of a sailor’s college tuition up to 16 credit hours each fiscal year — a maximum benefit of $4,000, at $250 per credit hour.

The proposal still needs to get the OK from the Pentagon.

“For FY ’15 we are proposing a 75-25 [percent] split for TA, continuing our commitment to afford sailors an opportunity to pursue their education goals,” said Lt. Cmdr. Chris Servello, spokesman for the chief of naval personnel. “Having ‘skin in the game’ provides added incentive to stay focused and aligned with their education plans.”

But that’s the only proposed change, officials say. All other existing TA “business rules” would stay the same, including credit hour and monetary caps, and limits to who can get TA dollars.

For example, sailors at their initial duty stations aren’t allowed to use TA until they have a year on board.

But there is some good news: there’s an unexpected pile of TA money available right now.

Use or lose

The 75-25 split would return the Navy to how it handled TA in 2000.

Under the old plan, the Navy funded three-quarters of the Defense Department’s $4,500 limit. Since then, it has funded all of the currently allowed $4,000, 16-credit cap.

This plan almost returned a year ago as part of the sequestration cuts, when the other services suspended TA funding and the Navy asked to revert to the 75-25 split. But those plans were blocked by Congress and shelved. Until now. The proposal would kick in starting Oct. 1, if approved.

The Navy’s current program remains in effect, and to date, the service has only spent $39 million of its $86 million budget — well below their historic use rates from the past few years — due to declining use for the first time in years.

“We use historical ‘burn rates’ as a guide for allocating TA funding throughout the year,” said Ernest D’Antonio, head of Navy voluntary education programs at the Center for Personal and Professional Development.

Based on those rates, officials estimate they’ve spent $6 million less than they had at this time last year.

“We think a variety of things influenced our being below the TA budget right now,” said Lt. Cmdr. Mark Wadsworth, who leads the team tracking Navy TA spending. “Our execution rate dropped in October with the government shutdown, and that’s carried through the year,” he said. “The usage rate steadily increased in November and December, but then it dropped back down in January, probably due to uncertainty with the federal budget.”

To date, 25,000 sailors have used the benefit, which the Navy normally allots on a quarterly basis. In past years, demand has been so great that a quarter’s funds have run out before the quarter did, and some sailors were told to reapply later.

But use hasn’t rebounded since January, and the service finds itself in unfamiliar territory, rolling over unused credits from one quarter to another.

There’s a limit to how far they can roll the funds.

“Although we have funding now,” Wadsworth said, “sailors need to understand that their education benefits reset each year, and unused amounts don’t carry over [between fiscal years].”

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