An estimated 39,000 more first-term sailors are now eligible for tuition assistance with their commanding officer's approval, under a tuition assistance overhaul unveiled Aug. 21.

That's the good news.

The other major changes, ordered by the Pentagon, are that the assistance will cover only tuition expenses and the trigger for having to repay the Navy will become more strict.

Under the new rules starting Oct. 1, TA usage will cover tuition only — forcing sailors to pay for any other course-related fees out of pocket. And sailors taking undergraduate courses will have to score a "C" grade or better — or pay the Navy back for tuition.

The first major overhaul of tuition assistance in years had sailors' input, especially in terms of expanding eligibility.

"We are expanding the authority of COs and the opportunity for first-term sailors to take advantage of our tuition assistance program," Vice Adm. Bill Moran, the chief of naval personnel, told Navy Times.

"This was an idea first raised by sailors at all-hands calls and something that COs and command triads felt could easily be done at their level," Moran said in an Aug. 21 phone interview. "Based on that discussion, we went back and reviewed our policy. In the end we agreed."

Moran reiterated the Navy's support for fully funding tuition assistance through fiscal year 2015 and says the Navy reversed course and no longer plans to require sailors to foot 25 percent of the tuition costs under TA.

What you need to know about the new rules:

No fees

Tuition assistance previously covered many fees that directly related to the course a sailor might be taking, such as lab fees, for example.

No longer.

Under the new policy announced in NAVADMIN 190/14, TA will only be permitted for tuition costs. Schools that bundle tuition, fees, supplies and books will now be required to itemize those costs to the military, with the service only picking up the tuition tab.

"The removal of fees directly supports the president's executive order requirement to provide meaningful information to students about the financial cost and attendance at an institution so military students can make informed decisions on where to attend school," wrote Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a DoD spokesman, in a written response to a query.

"The department aims to promote increased transparency by requiring educational institutions that bundle tuition, fees, or books into a consolidated cost to detail the charges of fees and books separately for service members participating in the TA program."

Navy TA rules have long required sailors to buy their own textbooks and in the past haven't covered any enrollment costs, but now sailors will be required to foot the bill for all other fees.

Fees not covered under the new TA rules "include any charge not directly related to course instruction including, but not limited to, costs associated with room, board, distance learning, equipment, supplies, books/materials, exams, insurance, parking, transportation, admissions, registration or fines," according to the new DoD instruction.

Make the grade

Sailors have always been required to reimburse the Navy if they flunk a class (officially, scoring an "F").

Now DoD has raised the bar, with anything less than a "C" in an undergrad course or a "B" in a graduate course triggering recoupment for tuition expenses, a step aimed to dissuade sailors from slacking off.

The payback rule also is triggered when a student withdraws from a course after the date the school would refund the course tuition cost or when a student scores an incomplete "within the time limits stipulated by the educational institution" or six months after the course finishes, the naval message said.

What has not changed are the grade-point average requirements. Those seeking an undergrad degree must maintain a "C" average or above, 2.0 on a four-point scale. And graduate students must maintain at least a "B" average, 3.0 or higher, after completing the equivalent of six semester hours.

Those whose GPA dips below either required level will be banned from using TA. But officials say it's not a lifetime ban. If a sailor pays out of pocket for courses to raise his or her grade-point average above the required baseline, then he or she will be eligible for TA again.

First-term waivers

The Navy's rules are a turnaround from just four years ago.

In 2010, the Navy barred sailors in their first year at their first permanent duty station from using TA or participating in the afloat courses of the Navy College Program for Afloat College Education.

Roughly 5 percent of all courses taken under TA end in failure or non-completion, Navy officials said then. But that incidence was much higher among first-term sailors, leading to the existing rules.

Those restrictions, officials told Navy Times in 2010, would allow sailors to concentrate on getting qualified in their jobs and watch stations first, as well as to start working on warfare qualifications — which had just become mandatory.

Despite the first-year ban on tuition assistance for young sailors, they were eligible for some other educational benefits, such as the Navy-sponsored academic skills courses to improve their math and English abilities. Although sailors did not receive college credit, the courses did prepare them for college work, boosting their chances of earning college credit.

Under the new rules,first-term sailors can use TA — with a waiver from their CO. Hot-running sailors who complete their initial quals in their first year can apply for a waiver and begin college earlier than their non-qual peers, officials say.

But some prerequisites still apply. In order to be eligible to apply for TA, all sailors — not just first-termers — must:

¦ Get counseling at a Navy College Office or through the Navy's Virtual Education Center.

¦ Develop an education plan approved by a Navy education counselor.

¦ Win their command's endorsement.

The waivers are likely to increase TA usage in the fleet; they do not apply to NCPACE, officials confirmed. As of Aug. 15, 40,453 sailors had received tuition assistance in fiscal 2014 for 112,885 separate course enrollments. The cost to the Navy: $77.4 million.

Officials anticipate sailors will spend a total of $82 million by Sept. 30, when the fiscal year ends. The Navy expects to spend about the same amount on TA next year. More sailors will use the program, but the service won't be spending money on fees, so the total cost should remain about the same.

Moran said the decision to lift the first-term ban was a no-brainer and was another step to trim the red tape for hard-chargers.

"These are exactly the types of decisions that COs and command triads should be making. They know their people best," Moran said. "We will continue to look for policy changes that reduce the admin burden and further empower commands to make these types of decisions at their level."

Mark D. Faram is a former reporter for Navy Times. He was a senior writer covering personnel, cultural and historical issues. A nine-year active duty Navy veteran, Faram served from 1978 to 1987 as a Navy Diver and photographer.

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