Military tuition cuts: A tangible sequester impact

A faculty member of the The United States Military Academy takes a a photo of the graduation and commissioning ceremony May 26, 2012 in West Point, N.Y.

It's been ten days since those automatic spending cuts went into effect, and there are folks making tough decisions all across the country. Two branches of the military -- the Army and the Marines -- have decided they're not taking any new applications for a program that offers tuition assistance to active duty service members. 

Last year, more than half a million of them got that help, to go to night school, to take classes online. Gordon Adams, a professor at the American University School of International Service, calls the program “useful.” 

“They can both get a degree and do their active service at the same time,” Adams said.

According to Adams, this is a popular program, and in the context of the whole Pentagon budget, it’s not that expensive. All branches of the military spent just half a billion dollars on tuition assistance last year. 

But Larry Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, says it’s an attention-grabber. It’s the kind of cut that leads constituents to call Congress. “'Wait a second -- these kids who sacrificed so much for us, you mean you’re going to prevent them from going to school?'”

This won’t affect service members who are currently getting tuition benefits, but it is sure to affect many of the schools they’re enrolled in -- especially for-profit colleges and universities. Last year, more than two-thirds of these benefits paid for “distance learning” classes.

The recommendation to freeze tuition benefits came from the Secretary of Defense’s budget advisor. 

“Under sequestration, we’ve got to cut roughly $46 billion says Cmdr. Leslie Hull-Ryde, a Defense Department spokesperson. “That’s about 9 percent from every Defense account except for military personnel funding.”

The Navy and the Air Force say they will make announcements on their own tuition-assistance programs soon. In the meantime, the Army says it will consider reinstating the benefits for active duty soldiers if the budget situation improves. 

To be clear, these cuts don’t affect veterans. The GI Bill -- a much larger program -- is sequester-proof.

About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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