We called it almost eighteen months ago, and it looks like our prediction is coming true.  This week, both the Marine Corps and the Army announced an immediate halt to the tuition assistance (TA) program for active duty personnel, members of the Army National Guard and reservists.  The cessation of benefits–which was blamed on sequestration–eliminates tuition payments for off-duty education programs.

Under the now-halted program, Marines and soldiers received up to $4,500 a year for voluntary education programs.  Tuition assistance paid 100% of tuition costs, up to $750 a course, with benefits being capped at the annual limit.  As of this writing, members of the U.S. Coast Guard and the Air Force are still receiving $4,500 annually in tuition assistance, while sailors receive $4,000 a year.  There has been wide speculation that the other services will also halt their TA programs in the coming days, in an effort to save money.

Sadly, the demise of TA was all-but-inevitable.  From our post on October 19, 2011:

The end of the U.S. military’s tuition assistance program may be at hand. Yesterday, the Marine Corps announced that annual benefits will be cut, from a maximum of $4500 a year, to $3500.

Additionally, the Corps is reducing payments per credit hour to $175 for undergraduate courses and $225 for graduate programs. However, the “real” TA cap for the majority of Marines will be only $875 per year, based on “analysis” that shows most participants take only 5-6 credit hours annually.

Changes in the Marine Corps TA program were made retroactive to 1 October. While the other services have not announced similar cuts, all are watching the USMC experiment and may unveil their own reductions in the coming months.

Currently, the Pentagon spends over $600 million a year on tuition assistance, which provides money for active-duty military members (along with guardsmen and reservists) to attend off-duty college classes. The program’s price tag has more than doubled over the past decade, after the military raised the payment rate from 75% for each class, to 100%, with a cap of $750 per course.

There are signs that more cuts may be in the offing. Earlier this year, the Pentagon’s chief of voluntary education, Carolyn Baker, said the current TA program is “unsustainable.” Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) has described TA as a “poor recruiting and retention tool,” advocating a 90% reduction in the program. More recently, a Colorado Congressman asked DoD to consider a return to the 75% payment rate, which was in effect for decades. There is growing consensus in Congress (and the Pentagon) that TA must be cut, as the military faces hundreds of billions in budget cuts.

Attempts to cut the program in 2011 touched off a furor in the ranks, and the benefits were quickly restored.  This time around, there has been virtually no outcry; with Navy carrier groups unable to deploy due to a lack of money–and the services reducing their ranks by more than 200,00p personnel, it’s difficult to justify a $600 million expenditure for off-duty education.  

But, as we observed seventeen months ago, this particular cut is exceedingly short-sighted.  Fact it, Tuition Assistance delivers exceptional bang-for-the-defense-buck, in comparison to other military education programs.  With service members taking classes while in uniform (typically on-line, during their off-duty hours), the military benefits from the knowledge and expertise they gain.  I recently met with an Air Force Colonel who earned his PhD through off-duty education.  He told me the knowledge he gained in that program contributed directly to a pair of major studies that have had far-reaching consequences, both at home and in the war zone.  

And it’s not just senior officers who benefit.  A supply sergeant who completes his bachelor’s in logistics becomes a better manager of military inventory.  Ditto for the security forces specialist who finishes her bachelor’s in justice studies, or the budget analyst who earns a bachelor’s or graduate degree in accounting.  In an era of the “strategic corporal,” the importance of off-duty education for enlisted members has never been more important.  

But what about all that money?  For starters, the annual expenditure for tuition assistance represents about five percent of the yearly outlay for the Post 9-11 GI Bill.  If a solider, sailor, airman, Marine or “Coastie,” flunks a course under the TA program, they must reimburse the government.  By comparison, the GI Bill pays for failing grades, although institutions are supposed to pay closer attention to vets in that program who are struggling academically.  And education gained through TA-financed courses directly benefits the armed forces while few GI Bill participants return to the military after earning their degree.  

It’s also worth noting that a degree earned with TA is cheaper than one financed by the GI Bill.  Let’s use the example of two Air Force Senior Airmen (E-4s).  At the four-year point, one elects to remain in service and complete his degree using TA; the other decides to separate and become a full-time student under the GI Bill.  Both have 60 hours of credit on their transcript, based on their Air Force education and training, and college courses they completed while on active duty.  

The airman who stays in uniform enrolls in a regionally-accredited, private, non-profit university that accepts all of his existing credits and offers a significant tuition discount.  With institution offering a significant tuition break, the Air Force pays $675 a course, up to his annual limit.  The cost of books and lab fees is not covered by tuition assistance, so the airman pays those out of pocket.  Working steadily, Airman A completes the remaining requirements for his degree by the end of his second enlistment.  Cost to the taxpayers? Just over $40,000.  

Meanwhile, his counterpart leaves the Air Force and enrolls at a local state university.  But because the former service member hasn’t established residency in that state, he pays significantly higher tuition for the first year.  Additionally, the university won’t accept all the academic credits earned through military training and education, so the airman loses 20 hours of credit in the transfer process.  Luckily, the GI Bill covers his educational expenses and pays him a $1500-a-month housing allowance.  So, about the same time his former colleague finishes his on-line degree, our ex-airman-turned-full-time student walks across the stage to receive his degree.  Total cost under the GI Bill? More than $100,000.  

You should also remember that our second airman would be the exception among current recipients of the GI Bill.  Statistics from the Veterans Administration and the Labor Department indicate that about one-in-five separating service members become full-time students.  But less than 10% remain in school long enough to finish their degree.  In fact, the one-year dropout rate among vets enrolled as full-time students is more than 80%.   So, much of the $15 billion now budgeted for the GI Bill is being wasted.  

But there is a great reluctance to cut that program, given the GI Bill’s storied reputation in American History.  But that ignores a few inconvenient facts; first, the number of vets who used their benefits under previous versions of the GI Bill was relatively small; vets who gravitated to college were serious about their studies and largely committed to finishing their academic course.  Today, vets have been told that college is the “only” option for those who want to succeed and many have been victimized by for-profit schools that view students as a tool for enhancing share-holder value, or public universities that are unprepared and ill-equipped for the veterans who are entering their classroom.  

That’s one reason that tuition assistance should be expanded, not reduced.  Consider again the example of the U.S. Air Force, the branch that has (historically) emphasized off-duty education for personnel of all ranks.  Today, more than 50% of his senior non-commissioned officers (E-7 through E-9) have at least an associate’s degree; almost 25% have a bachelor’s degree and five percent have their master’s.  Virtually all of those degrees were earned through voluntary education, utilizing tuition assistance.  The benefit to the Air Force–and the rest of DoD–is almost incalculable. 

If Uncle Sam wants to improve his military education programs–and save money–here are a few ideas.  First, covert the regionally-accredited Community College of the Air Force (CCAF) into a community college serving all of DoD. Founded 40 years ago, the regionally-accredited CCAF was a game-changer in military education; it awards credit for military training and education, and confers scores of different associate’s degrees based on various Air Force specialties.  Much of the credit is based on an airman’s military training and education, so the “cost” is already built into the service’s system for training personnel for various tasks.  A number of civilian institutions accept most (or all) of the credits awarded by CCAF, so the typical airman has a distinct advantage in working towards his or her bachelor’s degree.  

It’s that type of sensible solution that would make military voluntary ed more efficient and accessible.  But unfortunately, there are a number of obstacles in the way.  First, the Air Force wouldn’t surrender CCAF to DoD, though a plan is in the works to let members of other services (who earn credits at USAF-run technical schools) complete their associate’s through the Air Force institution.  Secondly, with sequestration fever at full tilt, there is little consideration about what is being cut from the defense budget, and it’s long-term consequences.  Just keep hacking away until you meet the desired numbers.  

Finally, any attempt to preserve/expand TA will be pitted against another political sacred cow, the GI Bill.  Cut that program, and you’ll be accused of targeting the nation’s veterans–a label no politician wants.  Of course, it’s perfectly fine to raise TRICARE co-pays for armed forces families and force thousands of mid-career military out of the service, with no pension and virtually no benefits.  That’s okay, because our military forces represent less than one percent of our population.  On the other hand, various versions of the GI Bill serve a much larger constituency.   

And there’s no reason that program has to be killed–just reformed.  An ideal program would blend voluntary education on active duty, with the GI Bill serving as a degree or training program completion program after separation.  The savings would be significant, and more importantly, our military personnel and veterans would still have ample opportunities to finish their education, benefiting themselves and the nation they served.   

Instead, TA will die a quiet death in the next budget, and the public will be stuck with a GI Bill program that has become bloated, wasteful and its not delivering on its promise–to veterans or taxpayers.
In the interest of full disclosure, your humble correspondent is an executive for a private, non-profit university that is active in the military market.  Most of our armed forces students and veterans and many use the GI Bill to fund their education.  Our graduation rate for military students–active-duty, dependents, veterans–is significantly above the national average.