The Air Force announced the suspension of new enrollments for tuition assistance today, joining the Army, the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard in cutting the popular programs for continuing education because of the budget cuts imposed by the Congressional sequestration process.
The Air Force suspension of new enrollments started at 5 p.m. Monday, but Air Force officials waited until Tuesday to announce the suspension. Those airmen enrolled in courses may complete them, "but they will be barred from tuition assistance for future courses" until the suspension ends, Lt. Col. Laurel Tingley said in the statement.
Tingley said that currently 104,000 airmen use tuition assistance at an annual cost of about $128 million.
The Air Force is the latest service to suspend tuition assistance. The Marine Corps was the first followed by the Army then the Coast Guard.
The Army currently has 201,000 personnel receiving tuition assistance at an annual cost of $373 million, and the Marines have 29,000 enrolled at an annual cost of $47 million.
The Navy is the only service not to suspend tuition assistance for their sailors although Navy officials are reviewing the program, said George Little, the Pentagon spokesman. Those inside the Pentagon expect the service to announce action soon that would suspend or limit new enrollments for tuition assistance.
Unlike the other services, Navy leaders have considered only limiting enrollments rather than suspending tuition assistance completely.
The suspensions for the Army, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard will extend until the end of this fiscal year, which ends on Oct. 1. Pentagon leaders have made no decisions about whether the suspensions will continue into next fiscal year.
"We're still dealing with fiscal  and no decisions have been made with fiscal ," Little said.
He explained that service leaders for each one of the services are reviewing the future of the program. The services decide the fate of the tuition assistance programs, not the Secretary of Defense, Little pointed out.
"None of us like to make tough choices with respect to tuition assistance. We're here because of sequestration. The tuition assistance program is important to our department and our service members," he said. "These are tough choices for the services."
He laid responsibility for the suspension of tuition assistance upon Congress.
"Let me be clear, we are here because sequestration on tuition assistance," he said. "If sequestration were averted we might be facing a different set of choices."
When Little was asked if he could predict the future of the tuition assistance program, he said he couldn't.
"I don't know, we are in a period of terrible budget uncertainty. This is one of many programs that we are going to have to look at," Little said.
Military officials have encouraged service members to use their GI Bill benefits to continue their educations while still on active duty.
"Soldiers can continue to access their GI Bill benefits, if applicable (either the Montgomery GI Bill or the Post 9/11 GI Bill), or use another funding sources (i.e. grants, scholarships, or Army National Guard Soldiers using state Tuition Assistance)," the Army wrote in a statement to soldiers when officials suspended the program.
Using GI Bill benefits during active duty does not mean servicemembers will lose that benefit once they leave the service and the 15-year time limit for using the benefit does not start counting against servicemembers until they leave active duty. However, any GI Bill benefits used while on active duty will reduce the amount of benefits available for use after separation from the military.