More than 300,000 active duty servicemembers currently participate in tuition assistance (TA) programs which award up to $4,500 annually for tuition costs for high-school-completion courses and certificate programs, or college degrees.
In light of recent issues where sequestration caused the suspension of the TA programs of the Marine Corps, Army, Air Force and Coast Guard, Congress has proposed an assortment of amendments to assist military members and their families. Perhaps the most important one being an amendment by the House to prevent the services from suspending their tuition assistance plans without Congressional approval.
While funding for the programs was restored via an amendment that traded off spending on political science research, legislators have been mindful of the scope of the potential ramifications had the TA programs been cut, which led to the protective amendment.
As Michael Dakduk, executive director of Student Veterans of America stated, “Restoring tuition assistance is absolutely critical to the long-term vitality of our servicemembers. Education leads to success, both in uniform and out. By cutting tuition assistance, we set a dangerous precedent in our country that education is not valued in our military.”
In addition to protecting tuition assistance, Congress acted on other amendments that will affect servicemembers and their families should they become law.
- The Defense Department (DoD) will be required to provide free Internet service to troops serving in combat zones, responding to complaints about the high cost of such access.
- The Defense Department (DoD) will be required to provide the Veterans Affairs Department with a certified, electronic copy of service members’ military records within 90 days of discharge or release from active duty. This covers medical, personnel and unit records needed for claims for service-related disabilities.
- The Defense Department (DoD) will be required to create an electronic tour calculator to help troops track their cumulative active-duty service. This is helpful because reservists who earn military retired pay can receive their checks 90 days earlier than age 60 for every 90 days of active service.
- A pinning ceremony will be established, where a special lapel pin is awarded to a spouse of a service member deployed 30 days or longer in a combat zone. The legislation is intended to recognize the family’s sacrifice during combat deployment. Similar legislation passed the House previously but did not survive negotiations with the Senate.
- Service members will be permitted to use a certified letter from a commanding officer or records from the Defense Manpower Data Center as proof they are being deployed or reassigned. These are provided to lenders, landlords and others when they invoke their rights under the Servicemembers’ Civil Relief Act.
Kay Hagan, chairwoman of the armed services subcommittee on emerging threats, stated, “Denying educational benefits to our men and women in uniform is not the way to get our fiscal house in order. Many of our service members join the forces with the goal of advancing their educations, and we must keep our promises to them.”