Marines don't retreat, the old axiom goes, they simply attack in a new direction. Hmm...maybe they'll trot out that explanation (again) to justify last week's dramatic reversal on its tuition assistance (TA) policy for the Corps.
Just days after implementing a major cut in tuition assistance funding, the Marines shifted course last Wednesday, announcing that TA funding would be restored to previous levels. That means Marines will again receive $4500 a year for college tuition, paid at a maximum rate of $750 per course. Under the reduced rates, the yearly cap was cut to $3500 a year, but most Marines would receive only $825, based on data that most program participants took only 5-7 credit hours per year.
Why the sudden change? We're guessing that senior leadership got an earful from unit commanders and senior NCOs, who understand that TA is a very effective retention tool. If the tuition assistance program is gutted (or eliminated entirely, as some in the Pentagon prefer), it will wreak havoc with experience levels, particularly at the platoon and company levels.
The reason, as we've explained in previous posts, is simple. Without access to TA (or limited education funds under that program), Marines will use GI Bill benefits to fund their education. And, the highest payments under that program go to veterans who have left the military and receive their full housing allowance, along with education benefits.
Under proposed defense cuts, the Marine Corps will undergo a 10% reduction by 2015, a move that will eliminate 20,000 personnel. So, the TA reduction was aimed (in part) at convincing more Marines to leave the service, so the Corps can meet its new manning totals. But there was clear concern that a lot of experienced E-4s and E-5s--Marines who should be senior NCOs and officers down the road--will exit the Corps as well. That realization is what prompted the Marines to reverse course on the TA program.
Still, tuition assistance for the military is facing an uncertain future. As the Marines were modifying their position, the Air Force was unveiling changes for its personnel. Beginning in November, airmen can only apply for TA within 30 days of a course start date. Currently, they can apply for financial aid two months in advance, giving them more flexibility in planning their studies.
With a shorter timeline for signing up, the Air Force believes it can achieve savings in its TA program, since some airmen won't have enough time to complete the process. The USAF spends more than $200 million a year on TA; at the DoD level, the total bill for tuition assistance is about $600 million annually.
As we've noted in previous posts, the TA program has been under fire in recent months--and targeted for major reductions. According to various critics, tuition assistance isn't very cost effective, and does little to keep troops in uniform.
But the facts tell a different story. Thousands of military members earn their associate's, bachelor's or master's through the TA program each year. Payment caps within the program encourage participating schools to keep costs low, and the armed forces recoup money from service members who fail a course.
By comparison, the new Post 9-11 GI Bill is shaping up as a multi-billion dollar boondoggle. Two years into the program, costs are running three times higher than projected ($15 billion a year), and vets attending school under the program have an 88% dropout rate and only 3% remain in school long enough to earn their degree. But so far, no one is talking about "reforming" the latest version of the GI Bill.