Suspension of Tuition Assistance provokes concern by Soldiers in Japan
TORII STATION, Okinawa, Japan- On a normal day Torii Station’s Education Center provides help to about 25 U.S. Soldiers for Army testing services, education counseling and tuition assistance. But on the morning of Mar. 8th as word spread quickly on Okinawa about the suspension of the Tuition Assistance Program. The center saw close to 300 additional customers who made a last ditch effort to salvage whatever remaining tuition assistance benefits on their accounts.
Jeff Fishman, an educational services officer for the Torii Education Center, explained “We received a message about the suspension but in no way did we expect our Soldiers to come in the numbers we had. I honestly thought we would see a reduction but not a total suspension or cut of the program,” explained Fishman.
Soldiers in Okinawa were fortunate as the state side deadline gave them additional time to work on their application. The education center also stayed open until 9 p.m. in an effort to provide assistance to anyone in need.
The TA program provides financial assistance for courses towards a degree for voluntary off-duty education programs in support of a Soldier's professional and personal goals. Soldier’s could take courses either in the classroom or distance learning.
Per the suspension, Soldiers are not permitted to submit new requests or applications for tuition assistance. Those who were enrolled prior to the cutoff date are not affected, and were allowed to complete current enrollment.
Department of the Army officials say the suspension is necessary given the significant budget execution challenges caused by the combined effects of a possible year-long continuing resolution and sequestration. The Army plans to re-evaluate should the budgetary situation improves.
For Soldiers on Okinawa the Army’s message sent shockwaves throughout Army units.
Staff Sgt. Mark Locquiao, an automated logistics specialist for Echo Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Air Defense Artillery Regiment, said initially he was intrigued by the situation to suspend TA but had to gather himself quickly to focus on his Soldiers.
“I brought about 15 Soldiers to the center to sign up, including myself, before the suspension. In the long run an education is important and hopefully the issue with the military’s budget is temporary. We should not cut a Soldier’s educational benefits, Soldier’s need it.”
Locquiao said he hopes that it comes back in some form.
“If it is reduced from 100% tuition paid to a lower percentage, at least something is better than nothing at all.”
Spc. Brian Costlow, a wheeled vehicle mechanic assigned to Echo Company, 1 – 1 ADA, explained he believes the suspension of TA is a prelude to even more cuts that ultimately will have a grave impact on Soldiers.
“I understand my service to the country and its part of the reason I joined. But I also joined for the benefits. I really don’t understand why we should cut education. It is something Soldiers use as a tool across the board. For example using education for promotions and staying competitive,” explained Costlow.
Costlow added while the nation watches the sequestration process unfold in Washington the real impact of the budget reductions and challenges are on U.S. Soldiers.
“If we are going to see even more cuts and operate as an Army with less, Soldiers will definitely will begin to question, why did I join?”
The Army will re-evaluate should the budgetary situation improve. In Fiscal Year, 2012, more than 200,000 Soldiers used Army tuition assistance, which provided more than $370,000,000 to Soldiers pursuing educational goals.
For FY 12 more than 6,800 Soldiers earned associate or baccalaureate degrees and nearly 1, 950 received graduate degrees.
Soldiers who did not meet the deadline have a few options for educational benefits. They may continue to pursue their educational goals with VA education benefits, if applicable, to include the Montgomery GI Bill, federal grants and federal financial aid.