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Congress forces defense department to restore military Tuition Assistance program

A soldier of the U.S. Army V Corps at the U.S. Army base in Wiesbaden, Germany. Many members of the military depended on the Tuition Assistance program to help better their lives with college degrees. Today, Congress voted to reinstate the program, which had been a victim of sequestration cuts.
A soldier of the U.S. Army V Corps at the U.S. Army base in Wiesbaden, Germany. Many members of the military depended on the Tuition Assistance program to help better their lives with college degrees. Today, Congress voted to reinstate the program, which had been a victim of sequestration cuts. Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images

Just a few weeks after it was suspended, a decades-old financial aid program for the military was saved today when the U.S. House of Representatives approved a spending bill that will restore the aid for active duty troops.

The Tuition Assistance program had been a financial lifeline to members of the military looking to jumpstart their college careers while still on active duty. It paid up to $4,500 a year for classes. But after sequestration cuts went into effect March 1, the Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard and Army stopped approving new requests - upsetting troops who relied on the benefit. 

“It’s something that just has to be preserved,” said Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff of Burbank voted in support of the spending bill.

Sequestration put into motion about $46 billion in defense cuts for the 2013 fiscal year – that’s roughly 9 percent in cuts to every defense account other than personnel funding, according to the Department of Defense.

Schiff said suspending tuition assistance sent a message to the troops that their education was not a priority.

“I think many of them felt betrayed,” he said. “And I don’t think it’s the way we ought to be treating those who are dedicating their service to protecting the country.”

The program is still likely still to see cuts once it’s restored, but the decrease in funding is expected to be in the 8 percent range, according to Schiff, rather than 100 percent.

In an interview with KPCC earlier this month an Army spokesman defended the cuts, saying that soldiers had other avenues to pursue their education, like the generous Post 9/11 GI Bill.

"You have to consider, OK what programs are going to be top priority," said Tom Alexander, Jr., chief of Public Affairs for Army Personnel. "Tuition Assistance was a program that could be suspended.”

In an interview today, defense department Spokesperson Leslie Hull-Ryde said that the department will comply once President Barack Obama signs the bill and it becomes law.

"We agree with Congress that this is an important program," she said, adding that the challenge is figuring out how to maintain military readiness under the deep budget cuts. "We have some very hard decisions that we need to make right now."

The House approved the spending bill vote 318-109 this morning. Senators Jim Inhofe (R-OK) and Kay Hagan (D-NC) introduced the Tuition Assistance amendment to the bill; it had more than 20 cosponsors. The Senate passed the spending bill Wednesday night 73-26. Both Sen. Boxer and Sen. Feinstein of California voted in support of the bill, which outlines spending until the end of 2013 fiscal year. 

Prior to the votes in the House and the Senate, a bipartisan group of nearly 50 congress members – including Schiff - sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel urging the Department of Defense to restore the Tuition Assistance program.

“We believe this program is critical in assisting our service members during their transition into the civilian workforce,” the letter stated. It also emphasized that tuition assistance has been significant in recruiting and retaining an all-volunteer force.

The suspension two weeks ago was the first time the program had been suspended since it began in the late 1940s. Service members currently taking a class were not affected. The suspension applied to all future coursework.

Last fiscal year, about 538,500 service members took advantage of the program, enrolling in 874,000 courses. Tuition Assistance has been a key ingredient in helping service members attain college degrees since the GI Bill often doesn’t fully cover a four-year degree.

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