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Sailors #1 Concern

Navy leaders are keeping a close eye on the service's tuition assistance policy

Graphic illustration by Willie Kendrick, Defense Media Activity - Navy.

Graphic illustration by Willie Kendrick, Defense Media Activity - Navy.

During recent all hands calls with the chief of naval personnel and the master chief petty officer of the Navy, Sailors had one predominant question - What does the future hold for the Navy's tuition assistance program?

While the outcome of various budget initiatives and decisions are still uncertain, one thing that isn't is the Navy remains committed to trying to preserve a tuition assistance (TA) program that assists Sailors in achieving their educational goals.

As of March 22, Sailors are the only service members with the option of using TA after all other services suspended their tuition assistance programs in light of the continuing resolution funding the Department of Defense (DoD) at 2012 levels and large automatic defense cuts known as sequestration, which went into effect March 1.

Throughout the budget concerns Navy leaders have been quick to stress to Sailors that leaders realize the importance of the TA program and the need for continuing education for Sailors.

"Educating Sailors is one of the most important things we do in the Navy," said Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Adm. Scott Van Buskirk. "It is as much a part of readiness as warfighting and training for the fight. But we have to be smarter in the way we resource education, and that means finding a point of balance where we can sustain our programs both now and in the future."

During recent testimony to the House Armed Services Committee, Van Buskirk indicated the Navy has about 45,000 Sailors who participate in the Navy TA program each year, including about 27,000 participating now.

"[Tuition assistance] is super important for me," said Boatswain Mate 2nd Class Kelly Idrovo, stationed at Maritime Civil Affairs and Security Training (MCAST) Command in Dam Neck, Va. "Right now I am taking two classes a semester and each class is $500, plus books which runs between $150-300. If I had to pay for it all out of pocket, it would be close to $1,000 plus the costs for books. Without tuition assistance, I would absolutely not be able to afford to take classes."

The Navy's current TA program currently pays the tuition and fees charged by educational institutions for course enrollments up-front. There is a fiscal year credit limit of 16 semester hours, or 24 quarter hours per individual and waiver requests cannot exceed the DoD program limit of $4,500 per fiscal year. Payment for tuition and fees also cannot exceed $250 per semester hour. Students must receive a passing grade of "D" for undergraduate courses, and "C" for graduate courses, or pay back the money they received for the class.

TA was instituted in 1974 and for 28 years included a 25-percent co-pay. In 2002, the program switched over to the current 100-percent coverage. In 2011, the DoD paid out more than $525 million in tuition assistance. In 2001, the last year before the change, $192 million was paid for the same program.

Idrovo said she understands if Sailors are asked to pay a portion of their off-duty education, as was done in the past, to help with the current budget challenges, but it will have an impact on her ability to continue her off-duty professional development.

"I would probably only be able to take one class vice taking the two classes I'm taking a semester because of the money situation," she said. "When I compare the benefit we would get only having to pay 25 percent [of college tuition] to what I had before I came into the military paying my full tuition - if it's something we have to do I would understand. But it's definitely not something I would want to do."

The Navy was planning to spend approximately $84 million this fiscal year according to Van Buskirk. Of that, more than $40 million has already been invested into Sailors' continued education this year. Navy leaders recognize how advanced education can help make better Sailors.

"I joined the Navy in January of 2000 and one of my primary goals was to finish my degree. As a master at arms, a degree in criminal justice has helped me to become more knowledgeable in my career field, as well as become a better-rounded Sailor. I think being educated helps to give you credibility as a leader and set an example for junior Sailors to follow," said Master at Arms 1st Class Brant Baylis, U.S. 3rd Fleet's anti-terrorism leading petty officer.

If the program were reduced or cut, some of the approximately 15 percent of Sailors who are using TA at any given time may be financially unable to continue with the current pace of their off-duty education. Another concern from a Sailor close to finishing his bachelor's degree is that a change in benefits could shift TA to a benefit more suitable for senior enlisted and officers who have more disposable income to invest in education.

"I've been going to school for four years and I understand how important going to school is for me. However, for younger Sailors, attending college may not be as much of a priority with the co-pay," said Boatswain Mate 1st Class Yandy Hernandez, also at MCAST in Dam Neck, Va.
In response to the suspensions and growing apprehension over the status of TA programs, the Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support (DANTES) announced a new Webpage, www.dantes.doded.mil, highlighting a number of TA alternatives to help service members weather the fiscal storm.

DANTES also created a blog - DANTES Pulse - which will provide instant, up-to-date information and avenues for conversation between service members, education centers, institutions and the experts at DANTES.

"While the TA issue has challenged our service members to think out of the box and approach their educational goals with some creativity, the information resources assembled on the DANTES website provide them with answers and solutions to help them continue their progress toward their degree," said Dr. Carol Berry, DANTES director.

"As of today, the Navy's TA program has not changed. Regardless of the fiscal challenges the Navy is facing, Navy leadership remains committed to preserving this important professional development tool for all eligible Sailors," said Van Buskirk.