Sailors: Use Tuition Assistance While Available


NAPLES, Italy — The Navy hopes more sailors will take advantage of tuition assistance now that the service has dropped plans to slash the often-targeted $86 million program.

Ernest D'Antonio, the civilian who leads the Navy's Voluntary Education program, touted the program Thursday while he was in Naples for a graduation ceremony.

"It's something that's important to sailors," D'Antonio told Stars and Stripes. "The Navy was the only service during sequestration that didn't stop TA."

Though the Navy considered scaling back the program after similar moves by the other services, Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan W. Greenert rejected the idea for fiscal 2015 but said changes could still come in the following years.

Each of the four military services offers a tution-assistance program, which pays for servicemembers to pursue GED or college degrees while still in uniform. Unlike the post-Sept. 11 GI Bill, which is a lifetime benefit, tuition assistance is available only to troops that are currently serving.

The programs have long been in place, but all were sweetened early in the last decade as the services sought to attract and retain troops during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The Navy program now pays for 100 percent of the cost of classes, with an annual maximum of $4,000 for 16 credits a year, or $250 per credit. Sailors can choose any distance class or program from schools approved by the Defense and Education departments.

Tighter budgets and the drawdown of deployed troops encouraged the services to reconsider the programs.

The Army, Marines and Air Force all briefly suspended their tuition assistance programs in 2013 after the automatic defense cuts known as sequestration began. The subsequent outcry from servicemembers, military advocates and Congress spurred the DOD to restore the benefit soon after. The three services later adjusted eligibility, while the Navy continued to offer a full benefit.

In March, the Navy floated an adjustment to its own program by returning to the funding formula in place before 2002. Under the plan, a sailor would pay for 25 percent of the class with the Navy picking up the remaining 75 percent.

D'Antonio, like Greenert, said a 75/25 split would force sailors to put "skin in the game," encouraging completion of degree programs. He said data suggest that completion rates were higher before 2002, when full funding of classes was offered.

About 45,000 sailors enroll in the program annually, D'Antonio said. Spending this year has been slower than normal due to the government shutdown in October, leaving more money than is typical for the summer.

"We have TA money available," D'Antonio emphasized.

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