March 09--WASHINGTON -- Soldiers and Marines receiving help through the military's Tuition Assistance Program will have to dig deeper into their own pockets to finish their academic programs.
The Army and the Marine Corps have announced that they will suspend their participation in the Department of Defense program, which helps active military pay for college courses and high-school equivalency programs. The Navy and Air Force are considering following suit after a directive from the Pentagon to consider suspending the program as a result of the $46 billion in defense cuts that took effect March 1 as part of the government's sequester.
The program provides $250 per semester hour or $166 per quarter hour up to $4,500 a year for active military enrolled in college or high-school diploma programs.
The cuts apply to all Marines and soldiers, including guardsmen and reservists, but do not affect ROTC scholarships or education assistance through the G.I. Bill. Students already approved for tuition assistance for courses that have already begun will still receive help for the current semester.
"This program enables the professional and personal development of our service members and also facilities their transition to the civilian workforce, however, because of the current fiscal situation we are evaluating programs across the department," said Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christiansen, a spokesman for the Department of Defense.
It was not immediately clear how many soldiers participate in the program or how much the cut will save. Spokesmen for the Army did not respond to repeated telephone calls Friday.
Last year, 29,507 Marines participated at a cost of $47 million, and 271 of them reported earning a diploma, degree or certificate.
Staff Sgt. Jason Torres, a 2003 graduate of Center High School in Monessen, was among the participants.
Now he's a year from completing an online bachelor's degree from Thomas Edison State College in New Jersey, and he's worried about paying for it.
"It's discouraging because I'm so close" to finishing, he said.
He and his wife, Kylie, an Aliquippa native, spent Friday filling out financial aid forms hoping to qualify for a Pell grant or a Stafford loan.
"I was really trying to focus on completing school rather than paying off loans. I have a family to worry about," said Mr. Torres, an airplane mechanic at Virginia Beach's Naval Air Station Oceana and father of two.
He hopes that a computer engineering degree will win him a promotion to a cyber warfare team.
"One way or another I'll finish [the degree], but now I have to find the means," he said.
The cuts are affecting morale on other military bases, too, said Army 2nd Lt. Seth Kerr, a 2012 University of Pittsburgh graduate who is now a platoon leader in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg.
"My soldiers have a lot of concerns as to whether they're going to be able to finish" their degree programs, he said. "It's causing them to re-evaluate how they're going to be able to pay for it."
For some, education assistance is one of the things that motivated them to join the military, Lt. Kerr said. Now they're disappointed and worried, he said.
Twenty-four students on Pitt's main campus receive help from the Tuition Assistance Program, all through the Army, said Pitt spokesman John Fedele.
Student Veterans of America, a nonprofit coalition, blasted the cuts, saying they send a message that the education of service members is expendable.
"In this fiscal climate, I understand that tough funding decisions must be made. However, it is utterly unacceptable that the first casualties of Congress' inability to act are education benefits for service members," executive director Michael Dakduk said Friday.
"Not only does tuition assistance provide quality learning opportunities, but it gives veterans a leg up when they separate," he said.
The program was created as part of the 1972 Defense Authorization Act.
Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: email@example.com, 1-703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.
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