MyCAA: Can Free Spouse Tuition Program Be Saved?

Military family programs that are not used have a bad tendency to get cut. When only one in five qualified spouses used the MyCAA spouse tuition program, you gotta wonder: Can it be saved? Or, maybe, should it be saved?

My head says save every program that offers spouses any boost to employment. Study after study demonstrates that military life puts up measurable obstacles to spouse employment. We spouses need help.

My gut says this is the wrong program aimed at the wrong people at the wrong time of their military life. This time the research may just back me up.

Who isn't using the program and why?

The Department of Defense commissioned a study from the RAND Corporation to crunch the numbers from the DoD’s Active Duty Spouse Survey and figure out who was and was not using the MyCAA program and why.

If you aren’t familiar with the MyCAA program, the current version offers up to $4000 to spouses of service members in pay grades E-1 to E6, 0-1 and 0-2, W-1 and W-2 in order to pay for an an associate’s degree, occupational certificate or license in a portable field. Free money sounds pretty good, right?

Still, only 1 in 5 eligible spouses used the program in the last 12 months. Compare that to the 1 in 3 military spouses of service members in every paygrade who signed up for the original program (which allowed participants to apply the money to a bachelor’s or graduate degree). No wonder there is some worry about the sustainability of the program.

If the goal is to help military spouses gain employment and attract more users to the program, here are the three changes I think they should make:

1. Design the program for those who seek, not for anyone you can find.

More than half of all eligible users did not participate in MyCAA because they never heard of the program. Spouses married to service members in the E-1 and E-2 paygrades were the least likely to know about the program.

The researchers suggested advertising more. I suggest advertising less. Previous studies have shown that spouses don’t indicate that the military is a problem for their employment until the third PCS move. That is when they seek a program. That is when they need to find a program open to them -- whatever their age. Let need be the driver.

2. Design a program they want, not what you want them to have.

Military spouses tell us that an associate’s degree is not enough to land a job where they live -- especially in the medical industry. Since the total amount of funding is already limited to $4000, what does it matter whether spouses are using it to fund graduate education, a bachelor’s degree, an associate’s or a certificate? Even the researchers point out that a higher degree has a better chance of adding more to the family budget than a lower degree.

Limiting the aspirations of spouses also prevents qualified users from participating in the program. In the RAND study, 28% of eligible spouses thought they were not eligible for the program because of they had already earned a degree or because they were aiming at a higher degree. While $4000 isn’t enough to pay for the entire degree, $4000 is enough to move you forward. Zero dollars takes you nowhere.

3. Design a program for someone with an absent spouse.

Eighty percent of respondents said that time was the biggest barrier to going back to school. When you are married to a service member who cannot be counted on to be home to take the kids during your exam, and there is a demonstrable lack of child care available where you live, of course, time is a problem.

Sure, these spouses have the same 168 hours per week everyone else has, they just don’t have the same kind of child-free hours they need to complete a degree. That really matters.

The military is not going to suddenly free service members so that they are available for childcare. That is why five of the 11 recommendations made by researchers directly addressed the provision of childcare. The spouse education problem and the spouse employment problem are often directly related to how much responsibility spouses have for their children.

Researchers don't propose adding more funding for childcare. Instead they suggest having those who counsel MyCAA participants also tell them about about current subsidies for childcare. However, we hear from our SpouseBuzz readers (and our own experience!) how difficult good childcare is to find. Getting put on a year-long waiting list for a spot at the on-base daycare just isn't going to cut it.

The idea behind MyCAA is spot on.

The idea behind MyCAA is spot on.  Yes! Spouses often need to be retrained in a more portable career in order to continue to follow their service member.  Yes! Spouses are the number one retention tool.  Yes!  Spouses want education and desire employment.

We just need to look at this research to understand why the current model of MyCAA isn’t working. Tweak it more. Analyze it less.

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