[OPINION] Sequestration Deals Unfortunate Blow To Servicemembers’ Education Benefits

By Wendy A. Lang, Director, Operation College Promise (OCP)
NJ Association of State Colleges and Universities

Bryan Adams, OIF Combat Veteran/Outreach Director, Operation College Promise (OCP)
NJ Association of State Colleges and Universities

One of the first hits to federal benefits under sequestration was the disturbing reality that Military Tuition Assistance (MTA) would be eliminated for active duty servicemembers in the Army, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and, presumably in the near future, Navy. It is vitally important that educational program funding be restored for our service men and women.

Curtailing this program for educating and facilitating access to degree attainment – particularly for historically underserved populations – seems antithetical to the acknowledgement that we need a highly educated military force. Moreover, it means limiting servicemembers’ access to credentials that are vital to economic prosperity in the 21st Century: credentials that are proven to increase lifelong earning potential.

It is estimated that MTA – which has been around since the World War II era – serves some 250,000 soldiers and airmen with up to a $4500 per year in education expenses or $250 per credit hour. This allotment can be directed toward high school completion courses, vocational courses, and classes toward associate, bachelors, masters or doctoral degree. As evidenced, it serves many purposes.

As a program that supports veterans and servicemembers “To, Through and Beyond” their education objectives, we at Operation College Promise (OCP) are increasingly concerned at the number of servicemembers who were on the path to their education objectives but will now have extreme hardship in attempting to complete them. While these brave men and women committed to serve our country and protect our freedom, we have renounced the commitment we made to them: accessible tuition assistance for education.

Yes, the Post 9-11 GI Bill remains an option. It is a generous and comprehensive asset to servicemembers and veterans with 36 months of active service. It is not, however, a simple substitution as some may assert. MTA is payable based on the number of credits/coursework being pursued. In contrast, under the Post 9-11 GI Bill, which has a maximum of 36 months, a student uses a month while enrolled regardless of the number of credits being pursued. The result is the ability to expediently attain a degree while on active duty service under the Post-9/11 GI Bill is tenuous at best. Most students will likely use up this entitlement prior to degree attainment.

Couple this new policy with the separation of several hundred thousand servicemembers each year and we come to another disturbing reality: our economy, while improving by most accounts, will have to absorb the influx of these veterans into the job market. This population is already economically disadvantaged and suffering from a crippling unemployment rate – particularly those between the ages of 18-24 who lack a college degree.  Already behind the power curve, separating servicemembers will face an uphill climb compared to their civilian counterparts who have earned a degree.

Difficult times demand difficult decisions and there’s no argument that this is an era of challenging choices. That said, our commitment to those who have worn the uniform should not be sacrificed so easily. VA backlogs continue to make the headlines. How will they handle this new client base of Post-9/11 applicants?

Only time will tell, but 100,000 signatures (in one day) on a petition demanding action on restoration of these benefits will not go unnoticed…we hope.

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