But a looming continuing resolution to fund the government at fiscal 2020 levels is delaying those additional funds from kicking in until Congress finally passes a federal budget for 2021.
Secretary of the Navy Kenneth Braithwaite characterized the tuition assistance program, which covers both classroom and distance learning courses at universities or technical institutions, as one of the “greatest benefits of serving in uniform” in his 100-Day Message on Sept. 20.
“Education not only makes us a more effective Naval Force, but increases employment options for Sailors and Marines after leaving the service,” Braithwaite said, noting that the most common questions he gets when he travels to Navy installations are related to tuition assistance.
“We have requested more funding for the program to prevent future funding shortages,” Braithwaite said. “I would like each of you to receive all the education you can complete.”
Braithwaite’s comments came after the Navy was forced to revamp its tuition assistance program amid some financial limitations last year. In May 2019, the Navy announced that tuition assistance funds had dried up for that fiscal year ― months ahead of schedule.
The service spent more than $77 million on tuition assistance in 2019, roughly $2 million more than what the service had allocated for the program.
As a result, the Navy implementing some restrictions in fiscal 2020 to prevent funds from evaporating again. Officers and enlisted personnel have been barred from using tuition assistance in their first two years of active duty, and those eligible are limited to $3,000 in tuition assistance annually. Under new caps, sailors max out their off-duty college benefits at 120 credit hours.
When Congress refills the TA coffers, the money will come with new rules about how it can be used.
A total of $70.2 million was allocated for tuition assistance in fiscal 2020, and the Navy has programmed $88.54 million for fiscal 21, which begins Oct. 1, said Cmdr. Dave Hecht, a spokesman for the chief of naval personnel.
“While additional funding is programmed for FY2021, it appears we will be under a continuing resolution,” Hecht said in a statement to Navy Times. “Should a CR persist for the duration of the fiscal year, lifting the caps could result in a repeat of FY2019 when we exhausted TA funding in the middle of the 3rd quarter.”
On Sept. 22, the House passed a continuing resolution that would continue to fund the Department of Defense through Dec. 11, keeping funds at the same levels as FY2020. The Senate is expected to pass its version of the CR before Oct. 1, when federal funds expire, in order to prevent a government shutdown. And that means troops can only tap into the additional tuition assistance funds once Congress passes a defense budget for fiscal 2021.
Braithwaite signaled the funding increase would remove the caps, but the Navy has not set a deadline for when they will be lifted. Instead, the Navy said it will continue to reevaluate them.
“We will periodically reassess the cap based on the federal budget and number of eligible Sailors applying for TA,” Hecht said.
Altogether, the Navy is expecting that between 35,000 and 38,000 sailors will use their tuition assistance benefits in FY2021 — a slight decrease from previous years. Approximately 38,615 sailors used tuition assistance benefits in FY2019, which is below the yearly average of about 44,000 sailors using tuition assistance from FY2015 to FY2018.
Despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Navy doesn’t anticipate the virus will impact most sailor’s educational plans. Because more than 88 percent of sailors take courses online, most have not had to modify their learning as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Hecht.
“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is possible some of the 12 percent who had been taking face-to-face classes may pause until they can return to the classroom, but we believe some will also transition to online learning to continue their education,” Hecht said.
Aside from the funding increase and the possible removal of caps, the Navy is not planning any other significant tuition assistance changes in the upcoming year.