There’s little doubt that the military tuition assistance (TA) program is changing, and changing rapidly. Recently, most of the services have imposed new restrictions on who’s eligible for the benefit, and how it can be used. The Marine Corps, for example, has implemented changes that make it very hard for Marines to use TA during the first two years of their military service. Members of the U.S. Army have seen their benefits cut, decreasing the amount of credits they can take each year. Soldiers must also wait at least 10 years after completing their bachelor’s to start a graduate degree utilizing tuition assistance.
But the biggest cuts have been made by the Coast Guard. Last November, that service re-introduced “cost sharing” in its TA program. That means the Coast Guard pays 75% of tuition (up to a limit of $750 per class and a yearly cap of $2250). Members must pay the rest of their tuition bill and the program no longer covers graduate degrees, or a second degree at the same level. The other services may implement similar restrictions in 2015, in an effort to save money.
As you might expect, changes in TA are impacting the education plans of service members. According to “Stars and Stripes,” the number of Marines using tuition assistance decreased by 75% during the first quarter of Fiscal Year 2014, which ended in December. Marine officials say it’s too early to blame the drop on recent changes in the tuition assistance program, but when thousands of first-term Marines no longer have access to TA—and others are restricted to a single course unless they meet credit hour and GPA criteria—an enrollment decline is inevitable.
Why does this matter? For starters, consider the impact on readiness and performance. America has long prided itself on having the “best trained and best educated” military in the world. But with few service members accessing TA benefits, education levels will begin to decline and that’s critically important in an era where junior enlisted members are sometimes called upon to make decisions with strategic consequences.
Morale and force retention will also suffer. True, pursuing an off-duty degree isn’t the primary job of any solider, sailor, airman, Marine or “Coastie,” but education benefits are a reason that many enlist—and re-enlist. If the economy improves (and education programs continue to atrophy), service members will have one less reason to stay in uniform. That translates into even lower experience levels in a military that will lose thousands of trained personnel over the next few years.
Cutting the TA budget will certainly save money—but those gains may be offset by unaffordable losses in other areas.
Gary Pounder, Director of Military Affairs and Contract Credit with Thomas Nelson Workforce Training & Continuing Education, has a substantial wealth of knowledge in academia and military.
Contact Gary Pounder or the Military Affairs team for all your military education needs.