Op Ed: Tuition Assistance in the Crosshairs

It's all over the military and academic press.  It's in newspapers near military installations around the world.  The Marines and the Army and the Air Force have now suspended military TA; so has the Coast Guard.  The Navy could well fall next.

So what's going on - and is it necessary?  The answer to the latter question plainly put is “No, it's not necessary,” despite all the tales of ‘woe' from leadership in the Pentagon and in the military. 

First, I'll provide a bit of backdrop, and then a bit of an analysis of the first part of that question. Then I'll address why the cuts don't make sense and really can't be logically and realistically justified.

Military TA has been around since after World War Two.  It's been part of the Voluntary Education program since its inception and was intended to defray part of the cost of tuition for whatever degree program a Service member happened to be interested in pursuing.  Thus, Congress named it the Voluntary Education Program when they first authorized federal funding for tuition coverage in the Defense Authorization Act of 1972. 

Over a period of fifty-plus years, the Services paid for TA at varying levels, until the Joint Chiefs of Staff, along with the Marsh Commission on Quality of Life in the Armed Forces convinced DoD to standardize the levels of coverage across the Services.

Initially, uniform coverage was provided at a cap of $187.50 per unit up to an annual ceiling of $3,500.00.  That changed in 2002 when the cap and ceiling were increased to $250.00 and $4,500.00 respectively.  Note that, in most instances, the cost of tuition easily exceeds those amounts in today's setting, and as a result, TA could bear increased coverage, not less.

But that aside, for the most part, institutional tuition normally runs more than what TA covers.  So going to school was not then, and is still not a free ride for Service members.  Although they can use other sources of government funding to help augment that to some extent, active duty service members don't get off scot free.  They have long had to pay the difference between Service-provided TA, other government funding and what the institutions actually charge.

What has unfolded the past few days has obviously been gut-wrenching for almost everyone involved.  But, that said, until this last week, historically the DoD has been out front, as leader of the pack, encouraging, sometimes cajoling the Services not to limit or cut TA.  For decades it was DoD that insisted that the Services toe the line concerning this congressionally supported program.  When it looked like they were even on the verge of straying, DoD staff chased down millions to shore up Service TA accounts, so that Service members wouldn't suffer the consequences, and so that Congress' intent that DoD defray in-service education would continue to be met.

DoD was truly serious about that commitment at the time.  So much so that the department released a document in 2002, “The New Social Compact: a Reciprocal Partnership between the Department of Defense, Service members, and Their Families,” and then a follow-on version in 2004, the “Modernized Social Compact,” both of which foot-stomped this commitment.  The latter touted a 20-year plan to improve the quality of life of military personnel and their families, to include a commitment to reduce out-of-pocket costs for, among other things, military TA.  Neither document is still available on line for review, although commitments set forth therein have only run eleven years of their twenty year life cycle.

So, getting back to the question posed in the second paragraph, what's going on?  Who knows for sure; but, on multiple levels, it sure doesn't make any meaningful sense.

I say that because the TA program has long been touted by DoD, the Services and by commander after commander.  They have long quoted studies that have shown that, decade after decade, the military education program is one of the biggest morale boosters in their quivers.  Further, all agree that it has long improved recruitment, readiness and retention.  And it has undoubtedly provided us with the best-educated, best-informed, and most effective military force in the world. 

They are also fully aware that it prepares more capable leaders for the Armed Services, with students and graduates becoming better leaders and role models while in the Service.  And once they separate, graduates give back to the local communities they return to serve, obvious proof of the best the military has to offer.  And many, who are first-generation college graduates, have a long-term multi-generational, socio-economic impact on their families, not to mention the communities and the nation to which they have returned to serve.

So, what we have here is a win-win-win for all. For the Service members, for the military readiness to which studies affirm it contributes so much, and to the nation. 

Yes, it costs about $600M annually. That's a meager rounding error in the overall the DoD budget.  So, why on earth did current leaders have to suspend a program that offers so much for so little investment? 

Might it be that current senior leadership either has little to no history in the program, or doesn't know what lead to one provision in the TA program vs another?  Are they just unaware of the now un-kept commitments their predecessors made to generations of personnel who have come to depend on these ‘commitments' and the assist the program provides?  Don't they know the unintended long-term consequences of ill-advised decisions of this nature?  Might it be?

What of the ‘partner' institutions that have so faithfully provided the programs that the Services have depended on for almost seventy years now?  Don't they have any regard for the impact on institutions that have always been there for them and our members in uniform?  It was okay that DoD gave the Services over two years in the late nineties to adjust their budgets to accommodate an increase of TA from $187.50 to $250.00 a unit.  Would it be too much to ask for DoD and the Services to provide their institutional partners the same courtesy – make an announcement that this is coming and why and then give them time to make adjustments to the changes these recent decisions so abruptly thrust upon their institutional budgets?

Oh yes, we all know now that they think they have a fail-safe solution – scholarships, grants, and other methods of funding, like the active duty GI Bill.  Okay, these folks think that use of active duty VA education benefits will save the day?  Since when?  Did senior DoD leadership consult with their Voluntary Education experts to see what is immediately transportable, useable, under differing GI Bills, or how long anyone would have to wait before they would have access to those benefits?  It's not an automatic, immediate slam dunk that Service members can just start using tomorrow like they can TA.  And in the meantime, who suffers?  Who has to put a hold on pursuit of the education that was used as a hook to get them to enlist in the first place?  The guys and gals tucked away in the Pentagon, or those in uniform putting their all on the line every day?  You be the judge.

So, back to the main point here, DoD wants to cost-shift pursuit of an education from TA to VA.  On the surface of it, that seems logical. But is it?  Is it doable? Within some limitations, it could be.  But, rather than just use that as the solution of the moment, right now, after failing to tell anyone so they could plan around it, or for an immediate to short-term future, it might be appropriate for DoD to come up with a real plan, yes a plan, that would help them, the Services and, most importantly here, Service members, transition to that goal, rather than jump into it cold turkey without knowing whether it had any unintended impacts  other than save some money.

Have they worked with VA to implement changes to legislation that would better facilitate active duty use of the varying bills they may or may not be eligible for?  Are they going to help VA with the backlog of applications for benefits for retirees so they can make sure active duty personnel get their benefits in a timely way?  Or do they want, or do they care whether active duty personnel have to wait months before they get ‘tuition benefits' from VA, putting off pursuit of their education even further?

There are a lot of unanswered and possibly unanticipated questions hanging over this issue.  And DoD has a lot to do to regroup and get this right.  I encourage them to do their homework this time, use the quite capable expertise of their Voluntary Education staff to help figure out what needs to be done, how to sequence it, who needs to be folded into the transition planning from VA, what needs to get done and when, or the ultimate outcome will look even more out-of-sync the second time around in the eyes of the troops and the public at large.

What's all this we've been hearing about a strain on the DoD budget?  Let's look at all of this logically.  Back before Iraq II, back before Afghanistan, back before Iraq I, there was a DoD budget.  That budget included military tuition assistance, and a force that was not a hollow force.  Then Iraq I, Afghanistan and Iraq II happened.  And the budget (excuse me, off-budget shell games) ballooned to accommodate three military encounters needed to fund them. Still TA was fully funded.

Iraq I ended.  Afghanistan persisted, grew then began to taper off.  Iraq II ended. To accommodate those draw-down, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta started paring back the DoD budget, sometimes to cries of woe.  Think about it though, if we don't need to pay to keep standing armies in the field in Iraq, and if we're paring back in yet another war in Afghanistan, reducing troop strength to what it was previously, who could argue that there aren't some cost savings to be had there.  So, Panetta took it.  And we didn't end up with a hollow force, and most likely won't.  And TA was fully funded.

Then Sequester happened.  And what was feared to be another multi mega ga-zillion dollar cut, now appears to be something far less than feared, now somewhere south of $50B.

With all of that in mind, what on earth would happen if (1) we took the pre Iraq I budget, (2) added in 10-11 years of actual inflation, and then (3) added in some of the fluff that always makes it into Defense budgets to help out a few congressmen and senators?  If we did all of that, took the Panetta cuts, and factored in the real anticipated Sequester reduction, could we fund a viable military-industrial complex?  Interestingly, the answer is most likely ‘Yes!'.

So, let me go back to that second question of mine.  Were the recent suspensions of TA necessary?  Within the context of what's laid out in the paragraph above, since TA was fully funded in pre-Iraq I's less-than-hollow budget, and since it appears that the soon-to-be post-Afghanistan less-than-hollow force will yield even more ‘savings' to the nation, what kind of bridges-to- nowhere, what kind of DoD puff and fluff could be dispensed with to cover this long-heralded, indispensable, force-enhancing, morale-building, and extremely inexpensive tuition assistance program?

But, is there a solution?  There certainly is, actually a couple that allow us to keep the program while saving quite a bit of money.  First, restore military TA to its pre-crisis, pre gut-wrench rates of coverage of last week.  Do a meaningful, non-political, non-angstful analysis of the program; let the Voluntary Education professionals help you do the right thing relevant to the program and the impact it has on all the players noted above.  And then, after determining that TA can be funded in the post-Afghanistan, less-than-hollow military that will continue to persist after the Panetta reductions, and after the Sequester is eventually resolved (and we all know that these kinds of crises are always resolved in DoD's best interests), possibly at rates slightly higher than today's coverage, find a better way to administer the program.

How about managing TA centrally, like DoD does with its Transition Assistance Program and its MyCAA Program for military spouses?  Why not fold all of the TA dollars into one big pot, and use the Air Force's inexpensive enrollment and tuition management to administer DoD TA centrally and thus relieve the Services of their annual angst of wondering whether they can fully fund TA or not?  Centralization would be far less costly and would eliminate duplication of staff, facilities and IT infrastructure, to name just a few. And it would also be much less costly for DoD's partner institutions. So, if we're into finding savings, this might just be the best place to start.

Note: The other Services' enrollment and TA management systems are far too expensive (one is actually about ten times more expensive than the Air Force's) or too labor intensive, fractured and too fragmented and disjointed across department lines to provide the desired efficiencies or economies of scale.

Now, to summarize, there's a lot of dust dancin' going on in the Pentagon trying to justify a decision that didn't really have to be made in the first place.  And yes, the program is still easily affordable in today's and even next year's budgets.  There is even room for improvement, even possibly an increase in coverage, and a meaningful cost-savings that would add an enhanced economy to management of TA that would help relieve a lot of the undue angst and over-reaction we've seen the last week or so.

And in closing, if for whatever reason DoD can't do the review and retooling in-house proposed above, because its staff may be too swamped to tackle this too, bring back a task force of a bunch of us old retirees, people who know what's going on, what to look for, and what to discount, and we will dig in and do the analysis true, unbiased justice, and maybe even equitably step on a lot of toes in the process.

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Gary Woods, former Chief of DoD Voluntary Education, is now Executive Director of Woods & Associates, which provides consulting services for entrepreneurs, institutions and agencies interested in better and more efficiently serving the education and training needs of our military and veterans communities.

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