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Air Force joins in suspending tuition assistance program

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, March 13, 2013, at 10:15 a.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, March 13, 2013, at 5:08 p.m.

The Air Force this week joined the Army and Marines in suspending the military tuition assistance program for service members for the rest of fiscal year 2013 as a part of defense spending cuts.

That could affect more than 3,000 airmen at Wichita’s McConnell Air Force Base who are eligible for the program. About half of those airmen received college tuition money from the program in fiscal year 2012.

The program pays up to $250 a semester per credit hour or $4,500 a year per student.

The suspension doesn’t affect those currently enrolled in classes using previously approved tuition assistance, a base spokesman said. But it does create some uncertainty for those who plan to take classes later this spring and summer.

“Just imagine having to put aside your education for a semester,” Rob Kuhns, who oversees the Butler Community College courses that are offered to McConnell airmen, said Wednesday. “It has to be at least frustrating.”

About 350 McConnell airmen use the tuition assistance program each year to help pay for Butler classes taken either online or at the base. Southwestern College, Webster University and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University also provide classes for the airmen.

All of the 500 service members – almost all from McConnell or Fort Riley – enrolled at Southwestern use the program, school President Dick Merriman said. Most take the courses online.

He said he expects many of those won’t continue without the program.

“They regard this as a benefit they’ve earned serving their country,” Merriman said. “They aren’t inclined to dip into their own pockets. Most will sit on the sidelines.

“It’s not taking very good care of these people.”

Kuhns figures most of the airmen planning to take classes in Butler’s eight-week session that starts March 25 haven’t already signed up with the program, so they won’t be able to get assistance. Merriam said the same is true for a Southwestern session that starts the first week of April.

The 2013 fiscal year ends Sept. 30. The Air Force said it will evaluate the program to determine if it will be renewed the following year.

The suspension came after the Department of Defense comptroller recently told the service branches they should consider “significant reductions in funding new tuition assistance applicants, effective immediately,” said Cmdr. Leslie Hull-Ryde, a department spokeswoman.

The recommendation was the result of automatic spending cuts – known as sequestration – that began March 1.

“The unfortunate thing is no one can see the end game to this,” Merriam said. He noted that Congress and the White House could agree to end sequestration “at noon tomorrow” or at some unknown time.

“That uncertainty makes it hard for service members who have enough challenges with deployments and everything else,” Merriam added.

Each service branch is responsible for funding and administering the tuition assistance program.

The Army and Marine Corps decided last week to suspend their programs, then the Air Force followed suit Monday. The Navy is still reviewing its options, according to the Defense Department.

The Coast Guard, which is under the Department of Homeland Security, also chose this week to suspend its tuition assistance program.

“This program enables the professional and personal development of our service members,” Hull-Ryde said, “and also facilitates their transition to the civilian workforce.”

It’s also used as an enticement by recruiters and to retain service members, military officials said.

The program can be used only by active duty service members pursuing an educational goal. Members of National Guard and reserve units can use the program while on active duty.

At McConnell in fiscal year 2012, 1,547 airmen with the 22nd Air Refueling Wing, the reserve’s 931st Air Refueling Group and Kansas Air National Guard’s 184th Intelligence Wing received tuition money from the program.

There are some other options for tuition assistance.

Active service members can use a portion of their GI Bill benefits to pay tuition. Guard members also can use a tuition assistance program funded by the state.

In fiscal year 2012, the federal tuition assistance program provided $194 million to more than 104,000 airmen to take college courses, according to the Air Force. The airmen used the money to help them earn nearly 27,000 associate degrees, 2,400 baccalaureate degrees and almost 3,400 graduate degrees.

Reach Rick Plumlee at 316-268-6660 or rplumlee@wichitaeagle.com.

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