By Paul Stone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, July 18, 1997 – All service members will be entitled to equal, uniform tuition assistance benefits under a new DoD policy.
The policy, approved in late May, is slated to go into effect in October 1998. Under it, all services will pay 75 percent of the cost of tuition for off-duty college and university courses up to a maximum of $187.50 per semester hour. Thus, for a typical, three-semester-hour course that hits the $187.50 per hour limit, the military would pay $562.50 and the individual $187.50.
Implementation was delayed to give the services time to budget for the mandated funding levels. The policy, established by Fred Pang, assistant secretary of defense for force management, also includes a $3,500 per year tuition assistance cap per service member. Costs for high school equivalency programs will continue to be fully funded.
Each service currently uses its own formula for providing tuition assistance, according to Otto J. Thomas, DoD's chief of continuing education. In addition to deciding how much they pay, the services establish their own per-course and per-year limits and overseas funding rates, he said. Installation commanders in some cases can redirect tuition assistance funds to other local programs.
Thomas said the differences between services' benefits could vary by up to $300 per course.
"If four service members from the different branches were sitting in the same college classroom, it's very likely they all would have paid a different amount out of their pockets under the current system," he said. "This has created problems as the services have become more joint in their missions -- even collocating."
Service members began comparing notes and voiced concerns about the unequal funding, he said. The discrepancies came to the forefront during several studies in the past few years, including a 1994 study by the Defense Science Board Task Force on Quality of Life. The study, as well as congressional interest in the issue, spurred the DoD effort to the current policy change.
Thomas said not everyone will gain under new policy -- Air Force tuition benefits generally have been more liberal than other services', so the uniform payment policy may raise some airmen's expenses slightly. He emphasized a great deal of research went into reaching agreement on the new policy and said he believes most courses service members take will fall within the funding limits.
About 300,000 service members take advantage of post-secondary courses each year.