Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Putting an Entitlement on Hold

Ask anyone who's been a company, squadron or battalion commander, and they will tell you. One of the quickest ways to gauge a unit's morale is to spend a little time with military spouses. Husbands and wives of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are rarely shy about offering their opinions, and besides, if there's a problem with the unit (or base support services), it inevitably impacts the troops and their job performance.

Currently, a lot of unit commanders--and their superiors--are getting an earful about something called MyCAA accounts. The abbreviation stands for "My Career Advancement Account;" it's a relatively new DoD program that provides education funds for military spouses.

Launched last year, MyCAA was an outgrowth of a Labor Department effort to help the husbands and wives of military personnel develop "portable" career skills that can be easily transferred from one location to another. The program provides up to $6,000 that spouses can use for a wide range of educational programs, ranging from college and vocational courses, to specialized certification classes leading to a teacher's or real estate license.

But two weeks ago, the Pentagon suddenly put the program on hold, pending an administrative review. That left thousands of MyCAA participants in the lurch; students who had signed up for classes--but were still awaiting funding through the program--suddenly found themselves looking for other forms of financial aid, or paying the bills themselves.

As you might expect, the temporary suspension of MyCAA touched off a furor among military spouses. One group of angry participants met with Virginia Congressman Glenn Nye, whose district includes the sprawling Norfolk Naval Station. After the meeting, Mr. Nye sent a letter to defense secretary Robert Gates, asking for more information on the program's suspension-- and its future.

When MyCAA was placed on hold, the Pentagon didn't offer an immediate explanation for its actions, touching off speculation about how the money was being spent (or wasted). But it turns out the program was a victim of its own success; Military Times reports that MyCAA received more than 95,000 applications in the first six weeks on 2010, swamping the system and threatening to drain its budget.

DoD hopes to resume MyCAA at some point in the future, although it's unclear how much money the program will receive, and the number of military spouses that will be eligible for financial assistance. At projected levels (150,000 participants @ $6K per person), MyCAA is a $900 million program. Even in an era of $600 billion defense budgets, $900 million is hardly chump change.

In fact, the spouse program could prove to be more expensive (over the near-term) than tuition assistance for active duty military members; the Air Force, for example, will spend about $200 million on TA for its personnel this year, roughly one-quarter the cost of MyCAA for the first 150,000 participants.

And, in fairness, costs for MyCAA can be more easily controlled than those for the T/A program. While spouses are limited to $6,000, active duty personnel receive $4,500 in tuition assistance funds a year, and many use the benefit for an extended period. In today's military, it's not unusual to find retiring officers and senior NCOs who earned multiple degrees on active duty, using their T/A benefits.

However, the current problems surrounding MyCAA obscures a larger issue, namely, should the Pentagon provide education benefits for the spouses of armed forces personnel? While it's clearly a quality-of-life issue for military families, you can argue that education for dependent husbands and wives doesn't have the same impact as off-duty education for members of the armed forces. It may give the family a bigger income or a larger house, but the gains don't directly enhance our military capabilities.

Besides, military dependents aren't lacking for educational benefits. In addition to student loans and Pell Grants, there are literally hundreds of scholarships available for military spouses and their children. When the MyCAA program was suspended, an Army base in Virginia put together a list of available scholarships and programs for military spouses and other dependents; the list is three pages long, single-spaced, in eight-point type.

But participants in the MyCAA program don't want a scholarship roster; they want funding restored for their program. That's consistent with today's entitlement culture which is also evident in the U.S. military. When tuition assistance rates were raised from 75% to 100%, the Pentagon anticipated a 25% increase in program participation. Our good friend Chief Buddy tried to warn Air Force leaders that demand for TA would explode, with the military paying all tuition costs.

The Chief was right. In only seven years, the Air Force TA budget grew almost three-fold, from $66 to $190 million. Similar increases have been noted by the other services--and that was before MyCAA arrived on the scene. Clearly, there are limits on how much DoD can spend on educational benefits, and the rapid growth of MyCAA was more than even the Pentagon could afford.

Still, it seems doubtful that the MyCAA program will be eliminated. Once in place, entitlement programs are almost impossible to kill and this one has already developed a powerful constituency of military families, members of Congress and universities which serve the armed forces market. Look for an expanded version of MyCAA to emerge in a few months, with more money and staff to accommodate the increased demand. Questions regarding the efficacy of spousal education programs will be swept aside, and the budget will continue to grow.

To be sure, military spouse education is a far more worthy endeavor than many of the projects funded under President Obama's stimulus program. But if we're ever going to get a hold on government spending, Congress must mandate tough choices for all agencies and cabinet departments, including DoD. Perhaps the MyCAA program can be a starting point for DoD, along with all of that money wasted on VIP airlift for members of Congress. The savings may seem small, but if you apply the same cost/benefit analysis to enough programs, you can begin to eliminate waste and generate substantial savings.

All that's required are senior military officials--and members of Congress--who are willing to make the tough choices and stick by them. And that may be the biggest obstacle of all.


ADDENDUM: Did we mention that service members with the Post 9-11 G.I. Bill can assign unused portions of their education benefits to spouses or dependent children. One more option for financing their education--without the added expense of my CAA.

1 comment:

JoeC said...

Ahhhh, no good deed goes unpunished. And in typical government fashion (speaking out my * here. I don't know the particulars of THIS program) they probably got the cart before the horse. Again. Standard industry practice, at least in education benefits, is the INDIVIDUAL pays the costs up front. THEN if the individual passes the class with a C or better, THEN they can apply for reimbursement. In some more structured environments, a list of career fields (mainly at making the person a better employee) are listed, to which the employee can pursue as a company paid goal (again with the previous stipulation). So once again, some ham handed bureaucrat designed a program for his superior without gathering best practices from places where they already have such programs.... and p*ssed off the individuals as a side item. (My guess. Why follow what others have done. I think I'll reinvent, oh, the wheel maybe?)

And round and round we go.....