The University of New Mexico stopped accepting provisional Army tuition payments for its students last month after the service fell behind on paying its bills to the university.
Students there who were using Army scholarships were told by the university to pay out of pocket or drop out. The Army had eight outstanding invoices but has since paid all those bills after a Military.com inquiry. A spokesperson with the university did not return a request for comment.
It's the most recent example in nearly three years of issues with Army IgnitED, the service's tuition assistance program. But the Army now says the platform is being improved and the bugs that have put students and schools in a bind are starting to disappear. About 250 of beneficiaries who paid out of pocket since 2021 have yet to be reimbursed by the Army.
The program has been plagued with technical glitches stretching back to 2021 when the online service launched as a successor to GoArmyEd. Soldiers and other beneficiaries could not use their benefits, schools were not getting paid, and some beneficiaries were either putting their education on hold or paying out of pocket, sparking outrage across the rank and file and raising concerns in Congress.
Education benefits are a critical recruiting and retention tool in the force. Those entitlements are becoming even more relevant as noncommissioned officers are increasingly expected to have an extended civilian education. Roughly 100,000 beneficiaries use Army IgnitED each year, and it provides up to $250 per semester hour, with the benefits maxing out at $4,000 for the fiscal year.
Despite the problems, service officials hope the worst days are behind them -- when it comes to processing tuition payments -- after a system upgrade in August 2022.
The service claims Army IgnitED is now running relatively well, ahead of where it was in 2021, and is expected to be fully operational by the end of the year.
"We understand that over the last few years students across the Army have faced hardship and frustration while trying to get courses paid for," Col. Julia Bell, who oversees the Army's education programs, told Military.com in an interview. "We are committed to ensuring this upgraded Army IgnitED system provides the resources they need to facilitate their education."
The Army has reimbursed 533 of the 784 beneficiaries who were forced to pay out of pocket since the program began, according to service data provided to Military.com.
Officials hope to have all of those cases closed out by the end of the year. In total, there have been some 23,000 outstanding invoices since 2021, many of which were delayed payments to schools due to the glitchy platform.
Of that, the Army still has roughly 6,500 to process.The cause of delay is that those payments all have to be done manually.
In March 2021, the service launched the Army IgnitED platform for soldiers and other beneficiaries to use their education benefits. It was run by professional services company Deloitte.
But the program's launch was a disaster, and it was almost immediately shut down temporarily. The Army ceased most new tuition payments, effectively shutting soldiers out of a key benefit of their service. The problems resulted from the transfer of data from the previous platform, GoArmyEd, and a premature launch of the new platform.
Deloitte's government contract running the platform expired, and the Army opted not to extend it. Deloitte is known to take on other complicated Pentagon projects, including a $106 million contract to build an artificial intelligence hub for the Defense Department. After the bungled launch of Army IgnitED, the service took its business to BAM Technologies.
Improvements have come with the Army IgnitED's update last year and the Army's adoption of some of the internal mechanics behind the Air Force's online tuition platform.
"We did adopt a lot of Air Force [ideas] to enhance Army IgnitED," Keith Baylor, product lead for Army IgnitED, told Military.com. "So, instead of wasting valuable time, we got something that can hit the ground running."
Since the update, 80,000 soldiers have enrolled in more than 220,000 classes, all with relatively few hiccups, according to Bell. One new upgrade, the General Fund Enterprise Business System, has slowly phased in processing payments for 18 schools and was able to process $25 million in payments in less than a month. Army planners expect to have that new internal payment mechanism fully in place by the end of July.
"As someone who graduated college using tuition assistance, I understand the importance of this benefit, and ensuring the program functions as promised is something I will own," Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston, the service's top enlisted leader, said in a statement to Military.com. "We've seen a significant improvement in the functionality of the IgnitED system, with the overwhelming majority of soldiers experiencing no issues at all.
"As we work to clear the backlog of invoices, I'll continue to ask soldiers to not pay out of pocket for covered education expenses," he said. "Keep your chain of command informed of issues and work directly with your local education center to resolve them as quickly as possible."
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.