This past year, the Navy radically changed direction in how it delivers off-duty education benefits to sailors — now totally online or over the phone — and it seems to be working just fine.

Now, nearly halfway into fiscal year 2017, Navy training officials are "cautiously optimistic" that closing 16 of its 20 on-base Navy College offices last year hasn't had any adverse impact on sailor's access to voluntary education programs, including tuition assistance. 

The original plan was to close all 20 offices inside the continental United States by the end of fiscal year 2016, but the Navy has kept four offices in major fleet concentration areas open for an additional year. That one-year extension was driven by concerns from the Department of Defense and educational institutions officials that the move would disadvantage sailors, resulting in fewer course enrollments. 

The remaining four offices are still slated to close at the end of this fiscal year. The Navy still operates 11 overseas Navy College locations, including Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and will keep those open and staffed.

But the fears that lack of access to brick-and-mortar Navy College offices would limit enrollment seems to be unfounded so far as the Navy has changed delivery of these programs.  

In the United States this year, Navy Education and Training Command has ramped up their efforts to meet sailor's counseling and Tuition Assistance needs. That's included a new online education portal and over-the-phone contact with the Navy's Virtual Education Center.  The Navy has also released a smart phone app this year, which they believe will also help sailors get the help they need.

According to statistics provided by Navy Education and Training Command, one quarter into fiscal year 2017, usage of Tuition Assistance benefits are up over the same time last year.

Between  Oct. 1 and Dec. 31, 2016, the Navy processed about 35,700 course enrollments through tuition assistance for a total cost of more than $25 million

That’s an increase more than 2,100 enrollments, compared to the same period last year, when there were 33,521 course enrollments using Tuition Assistance for a total cost of $23.4 million.

"We transformed the Navy College offices to offer effective, modern technology services for every sailor in the Navy, regardless of where they live," said Rear Admiral Mike White, who commands Naval Education and Training Command.

"We continue to see increased interaction with our web services and it appears that sailors are responding to the new delivery model.  We are cautiously optimistic that our efforts will be proven to be even more successful over time."

In fiscal year 2016, Navy spent a total of  $90.7 million in funding nearly 47,900 sailors who took 132,667 total courses. The Navy's proposed budget for 2017 is nearly the same — $85.3 million.

Navy officials say they remain committed to fully funding tuition assistance. The program covers tuition fully for up to 16 semester credits per fiscal year. Books and fees aren't covered by TA and must be paid for by the sailor.

The Navy manages their TA program tightly, not allowing sailors to take classes during their first year at their initial duty station after boot camp and occupational training. Commanding officers can waive that for sailors they believe are ready.

But along with that tight management, comes a willingness to meet demand every year, often adding money from other training sources into TA accounts near the fiscal year's end to ensure that sailors requesting TA dollars can pay for requested classes.

If sailors fail a class or don't get a passing grade, the Navy requires them to reimburse the service.

As the Navy has shuttered the majority of on-base counseling offices in the United States, they have increased funding for their Virtual Education Center.  The VEC is physically located at Dam Neck, Va., and is open and available from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday thorugh Friday Eastern Time.

Also brought online this year was an extensive MyEducation portal accessible from Navy College website.

In February, Navy officials released smart phone applications for both iPhones and Android mobile devices that will extend services even further to sailors. 

Navy officials released a mobile application last month designed to help sailors get off-duty education counseling and benefits help, including allowing the to apply for Tuition Assistance from their own smart device.

Photo Credit: Mark D. Faram/Staff

"The Navy College Program app offers sailors mobile access to voluntary education planning tools, a counseling scheduler, and applications previously available only through the Navy College offices or the Virtual Education Center," said Lt. Cmdr. Nick Turner, the Naval Education and Training Professional Development Center's Voluntary Education Program deputy director.

"This app allows the completion of required training, processing of Tuition Assistance requests, and helps sailors obtain counseling without being tied to a computer."

The app also allows sailors to complete the required online training the Navy mandates before sailors can start getting TA and other education benefits.

The Navy College mobile app is targeted to active-duty enlisted members seeking education benefits. But officials say it's also a key tool for leaders, educational service officers and career counselors at the command level who provide management and counseling at the command level.

Users can download the free apps from the iTunes and Google Play online stores at no cost by searching for "Navy College" or "NCP" in app stores or in your web browser.

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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