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Plan on dramatic cuts in tuition assistance (Army Times)

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  • Plan on dramatic cuts in tuition assistance (Army Times)

    Plan on dramatic cuts in tuition assistance

    Proposal would reduce amount paid per credit hour and annually
    By Andrew Tilghman - Staff writer
    Posted : Wednesday Oct 19, 2011 14:01:36 EDT

    Active-duty members should expect significant cuts to the highly popular tuition assistance program next year under a Pentagon plan to reduce the cap on how much the military pays for voluntary education.

    Tuition assistance is an important recruiting tool, used today by more than 300,000 active-duty troops to pay for school. Current rules allow them to select any school with a basic accreditation and apply for up to $4,500 a year in assistance, with a cap of $250 per credit hour.

    The details of the new forcewide policy remain unclear, but one plan widely discussed by the Marine Corps would drop the annual cap to $3,500 and impose limits for individual classes at $175 per undergraduate credit hour and $225 per graduate credit hour.

    The Corps has not officially announced that policy, but it has laid out the details in a draft memo distributed to school officials for planning purposes.

    Pentagon officials want to develop forcewide rules to prevent the individual services from forging a patchwork of policies. Officials hope to have the multiservice rules ready to take effect by Jan. 1.

    Such a move would be among the first major benefits changes to affect service members since lawmakers have become intently focused on slashing the federal budget.

    The new limits will not prevent troops from aggressively seeking degrees, but it may become more complicated. Those who select education programs that exceed the new limits could tap into their GI Bill benefits to make up any shortfall, under a program known as “Tuition Top Up.”

    By forcing some troops to use GI Bill benefits, the Defense Department essentially would shift costs from its own budget to the Veterans Affairs Department, which funds the GI Bill.

    The Pentagon’s TA costs have soared in recent years to $542 million in 2010, more than double the $192 million spent in 2001.

    That’s mainly due to the rise in costs charged by schools and also by a 2002 expansion of the TA program to cover 100 percent of costs up to an annual cap.

    Previously, students using TA were required to pay 25 percent of their education costs out of their own pockets.

    The total number of courses taken by troops using tuition assistance has risen only slightly over the past five years.

    Preserving the benefit
    Military officials acknowledge that TA is a vital tool for boosting recruiting, retention and force readiness, but they say the costs are becoming unsustainable.

    “An increase in online coursework availability and service member usage, combined with higher college tuition and fees, have created financial conditions that need to be addressed,” said Air Force. Maj. Monica Matoush, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

    Defense officials are “reviewing various options to preserve the benefit,” rather than eliminating it, Matoush said.

    Some in Congress suggest reinstating the old TA policy that covered only 75 percent of troops’ school bills, but that idea appears to have gained little traction among defense officials who are developing the new policy.

    However, the Pentagon is under growing pressure to keep better tabs on how TA money is spent. Troops increasingly are taking online-only classes from for-profit schools, some of which are giving questionable education value for the federal money they receive, critics say.

    Details of the Marine Corps’ draft proposal were included in a memo from Central Texas College, which runs a satellite campus near Camp Pendleton, Calif. CTC said it will conduct workshops to help Marines manage the paperwork to access their GI Bill benefits, according to a copy of the memo obtained by Military Times.

    Maj. Shawn Haney, a Marine Corps spokeswoman, declined to comment on the draft policy because it is not yet finalized.

    Barbara Merlo, a spokeswoman for CTC, which is one of the nation’s largest recipients of DoD tuition assistance funding, said the full impact of the new caps is unclear, but they will have an effect.

    “It may be we don’t serve [the troops] as many classes,” she said. “It may be that we don’t serve as many students.”

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    I think I saw somewhere that the Marine Corps TA is now $875 per fy or 5 credits per fy.
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