SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan -- The Marine Corps has added a host of restrictions to its tuition assistance program, limiting the number of Marines eligible for subsidized college courses.
Applicants will no longer be considered for tuition assistance funds if they are in their first two years of service, are ineligible for promotion or if they have yet to complete certain military training courses, according to Marine officials.
In addition, changes have been made to the way funds are managed.
The changes were released in a servicewide message in September and were slated to go into effect Oct. 1, but the entire tuition assistance program was shuttered until Oct. 21 because of the government shutdown.
The Corps has found itself in an increasingly precarious budgetary position over the past few years. Between fiscal 2009 and 2013, tuition assistance was slashed by $19 million. Over the same period, the number of Marines participating climbed by 2,232.
"These eligibility changes may impact TA spending, but were not implemented solely as a budget reduction technique," Marine and Family Programs Division spokesman Shawn Conlon wrote in a statement to Stars and Stripes.
Tuition assistance funding could drop again this year due to uncertainties such as the looming budget battle in Washington and sequestration.
"The reality is we have less money for [tuition assistance]," Craig Lockwood, lead education specialist at Marine Corps Base Hawaii-Kaneohe Bay's education center, said in a Marine Corps statement. "There are more restrictions. If you are eligible, it's not going to be necessarily harder, but there are a lot more Marines now that are not eligible to use TA."
Another restriction taking effect is first-time applicants are being limited to one course, unless the servicemember has an associate's degree or 60 academic credits and a minimum grade point average of 2.5, according to a copy of the instruction. Funds will not be approved for new courses prior to the completion of old ones nor for courses that count toward duplicate degrees, such as a second associate's degree or a double major.
Requests for funds can now be submitted only within 30 days of the start date of a class. Under prior rules it was within 60 days, Marine officials said.
The Corps has also made changes to the way funds are managed, officials said. Now, the tuition assistance budget will be divided up into fiscal quarters. Once the quarterly funds are gone, approvals will be deferred to the next quarter.
Lockwood said every branch of service is dealing with a similar budgetary situation. However, none of the other three branches of service has yet made such drastic changes.
Air Force officials have made some changes to tuition assistance policy in recent months, such as tying approval to physical fitness and behavioral standards. They have also given supervisors veto power over a request for funds if they believe certain factors will impede the applying airman from completing a given course.
Army officials said their tuition assistance policy is currently under review by Army leadership.
"We recognize that the Army's tuition assistance program offers an important benefit to soldiers by providing financial aid to help them achieve academic goals," Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Alayne Conway wrote in an email to Stars and Stripes. "As we review the program, we are committed to providing assistance to the greatest extent possible, while taking into account current and future fiscal constraints."
Navy officials said sailors can help optimize the shrinking funds by taking advantage of other programs that help advance their academic careers.
"These include working with Navy College Program education counselors to develop individual education plans that exploit prior learning through experiential credit such as American Council on Education, and credit-by-examination programs such as College-Level Examination Program and DANTES Subject Standardized Tests," said Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Chris Servello. "A renewed effort by all sailors can dramatically lower Navy's overall TA costs, while greatly accelerating their own personal degree completion."
Marine officials said those who do not qualify for tuition assistance have other options. Marines are encouraged to visit their school's financial aid office and apply for a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, school scholarships or the College Level Examination Program.
"Just because you don't have TA doesn't mean there isn't still funding out there," Lockwood said. "Obviously TA is best-case scenario, but there are other options beyond it."