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Military Tuition Assistance at Risk

going to school while deployed

The Department of Defense and the Services are contemplating reducing the amount of military tuition assistance coverage provided Servicemembers. Comments at meetings and conferences by voluntary education leadership suggest that discussions concerning the level TA could drop touched on possibilities of $150.00 per semester unit, to $175.00, even $200.00, maybe somewhere in between. The announcement of the exact amount has not yet been made.  But whatever the final level of coverage is ultimately, it will have an impact on the finances and budgets of our nation's military families.

Military TA has been a benefit available to Service members since the late 1940's.  While initially intended for enlisted personnel, Congress extended coverage to the officer corps in the 1950's.  The Services initially provided varying and sporadic levels of coverage until it became a funded item in the National Defense Authorization Act of 1972.  Congress and DoD have continued to expand the coverage since then.

The TA program was developed to provide tuition support so that military personnel could pursue an education while on active duty, similar to the opportunities afforded veterans through Veterans Education benefits.  Its initial intent was to fund non training-oriented, personal development courses and degrees self-selected by the Service member, thus the terminology in law "off-duty, voluntary education."

As the tuition assistance program matured, leadership began to take a look at making it available to Service members with more equitable levels of distribution.  In 1992, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff tasked DoD to review the possibility of making TA policy uniform across the Services.  Doing so would ensure that Service members from different services sitting in the same classroom received the same level of TA coverage. 

In 1994, the Marsh Commission on the Quality of Life in the Armed Forces also noted the disparity in coverage and recommended that the Secretary of Defense establish TA policy that afforded the same levels of coverage for all members of the Armed Services.  In 1996, the Services agreed to a uniform TA policy.  A new directive was issued in 1997 that fully implemented this uniform policy.

Since it had been years since the level of TA coverage had been reviewed to accommodate for inflation in academe, as then required in DoD policy, in the 1997-1999 timeframe DoD and the Services agreed to begin adjusting the level of coverage upward.  TA increased from a $187.50 per unit cap up to an annual ceiling of $3500.00 to a $250.00 per semester unit cap up to an annual ceiling of $4500.00. The Service member still paid costs and fees over and above the cap and ceiling.  And they were allowed to use other non-duplicative funding to cover some of the difference between what TA would cover and what institutions of higher learning actually charged. 

This increased coverage resulted in an immediate thirty-three percent increase to the overall TA program.  Another change took place the same year that also drove up usage of TA as more Service members were drawn to the program because of new levels of coverage.  While the Department was waiting to fully implement the new levels of coverage it had settled on, additional legislation was passed that increased coverage of Service members' education expenses from 75 percent to up to 100 percent of tuition and related course fees and costs. 

These new levels of coverage were scheduled to go into effect in early 2001.  However, at the request of the Services, DoD delayed implementation until October, 2002.  That gave the Services a year and a half to work the increases into their budget planning and execution documents.

Enrollments and TA costs increased appreciably from FY01 through FY03, and that trend continued to some extent to the present. TA costs have actually increased from about $192 million in 2001 to somewhere about $550 million in 2010.  Although the Services were hard pressed to keep up with the growth in their TA commitment, they historically determined this to be a meaningful benefit and always found the dollars to cover the increases. 

This commitment runs even deeper from a pragmatic perspective.  DoD and the Services have long acknowledged that the military TA program is good for recruitment, enhanced morale, fewer discipline problems, and better retention.  And study after study has shown that TA is one of the main reasons personnel are attracted to and then actually stay in the military; DoD and Service analyses have shown this to have been the case for decades.  Service-sponsored, as well as outside studies also show that better-educated Service members perform better on the job, and thus contribute to enhanced unit readiness and mission accomplishment.  A win-win for all parties concerned – the servicemembers, the services, and the nation.

Over the years, insisting that it would be inappropriate to place the military TA program at risk, DoD consistently stepped to the fore when the services were on the verge of terminating coverage at one point or another, or when they wanted to reduce the level of coverage due to lack of funding. As an example, DoD provided additional funding so the Marines could meet the funding requirements for their TA requirements. And it wrote Navy leadership when it balked at providing uniform coverage required by regulation, insisting that the demands that we place on our personnel in uniform required nothing less.  DoD also augmented Navy TA funding when it appeared they were underfunded.

So why contemplate a potential reversal in coverage at this time?  Why put the morale of our troops at risk?  Why do anything that could potentially place unit readiness at risk?  Why place the recruitment and retention of our military personnel at risk? Particularly at a point where the cost of education is going up and up? And when a drop in coverage would end up costing Service members more out of pocket for their education? Why do this when the $550 million involved is really not that much in the overall scheme of things.

Those are all questions that DoD and the Services need to consider and come to some sort of reconciliation about when contemplating reducing a benefit that has had such a tremendous ROI for decade after decade.

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