Forcewide changes to the military’s tuition assistance program mean some soldiers may have to wait an extra year to receive the benefit.
Active-duty soldiers in the Army do not have the option to receive tuition assistance until they have completed one year beyond advanced individual training, said Jennifer Anderson, lead guidance counselor with Fort Hood’s Education Services office.
Once soldiers are eligible for tuition assistance, they are not permitted to take more than 16 hours per fiscal year (October through September) — a major change from the previous $4,500 cap. Now, Anderson said, the dollar amount is almost irrelevant.
“Not a lot of soldiers take more than 16 hours a year anyway because they’re so busy,” Anderson said. “When you start looking at National Guard reserves, that’s a whole other ball game. A lot of those soldiers are full-time students, so that can be very difficult for them.”
The final major change is that soldiers must wait to pursue a graduate degree until after 10 years of service if they received tuition assistance for any portion of their undergraduate degree. Anderson said this, like other changes, is a retention tool in response to downsizing.
“The focus now is on maintaining and keeping the best, if you will,” Anderson said. “They’re being told by the commander in chief himself, ‘You will downsize.’ So what do you do? You keep the best.”
Ultimately, Anderson said, the changes cause soldiers to more carefully calculate their education.
“They want soldiers’ No. 1 focus when they come in the Army to be getting proficient at their job,” Anderson said. “For some soldiers, it may slow down that process simply because they’re forced to wait now to start pursuing their education, which is not necessarily a bad thing for young soldiers.”
Barbara Merlo, spokeswoman for Central Texas College, said that while the administration at CTC does not dispute the need for cost cutting, there may be more effective ways to reduce tuition assistance expenses — for example, adjusting the annual dollar cap.
The tuition rate charged by CTC to local soldiers using tuition assistance is $71 per credit hour, and the cap for tuition assistance is $250 per credit hour — what many private colleges charge students in the Killeen area, Merlo said.
“Each soldier, in theory, can spend as much in 2014 as they did in 2013,” Merlo said. “If a soldier’s tuition assistance cap was lowered, wouldn’t that create an incentive to shop for the best educational value?”
However, Anderson said she believes there is always another means of funding to attend college. A solider can receive a maximum of $5,640 in a Pell Grant, and they are encouraged to seek grants and scholarships through their schools.
“They just have to look for other avenues if their tuition assistance has been exhausted,” Anderson said. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”