Ten days after the sequester—which forces the federal government to make drastic and draconian cuts to its budget—went into effect, active-duty soldiers in the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard and Marines found out that the Pentagon would suspend the federal tuition assistance program.
Many see the suspension of the popular TA program, as it is commonly known, as a PR stunt by the Pentagon (or by the administration who pressured the Pentagon, depending on who you ask) to get angry constituents calling Congress and demanding an end to the sequester and cuts to the Pentagon budget.
And that plan may have worked.
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Today the Senate passed a bill that would restore funding to the TA program, and to meat inspectors—a service which had also been slated to be cut from the Pentagon budget. As the bill heads to the House of Representatives, we highlight the personal impact the suspension of tuition assistance would have on two active-duty soldiers.
The Would-Be Data Engineer
Landon Weber probably still would have joined the National Guard if tuition assistance wasn't included. But getting help paying for college after serving his time was a big part of the appeal.
"I thought it was a good idea at the time, and I needed money for college," Weber, age 19, from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, says. He signed up for the National Guard in June of 2011. With eight brothers and sisters (and another baby on the way), his parents can't afford to chip anything in to help him pay for a degree.
He was planning on attending the Pennsylvania College of Technology—which costs $24,430 in tuition, housing and fees a year—to get a degree in computer networking while participating in the National Guard one weekend a month. Now, he's scrambling to find another, more affordable college.
"It really sucks because the colleges I’m looking at don’t have the same degree as Penn Tech," Weber explains. "They have computer programs but they’re not even the same idea at all." Without the tuition assistance he also might have to take on more student loan debt.
The cuts to the TA program, which provides up to $4,500 a year in assistance, came as a surprise to service members, who had assumed the Pentagon would target other expenditures first.
"We all knew that there was other stuff they could have cut," says Weber. "We‘re not cool with that. There’s a lot of kids who go into the Army for college benefits, and then they don’t get what they expected."
The Would-Be Officer
"It’s frustrating, especially because when I enlisted, that was a given," says Michael Artale, 19, who is attending Liberty University in Virginia while serving in the National Guard. He didn't sign up just for the tuition, but it's a big part of his career path. "I’ve always wanted to serve. My goal after college is to go to officer candidate school and work in the Army."
Artale had been considering transferring already, but he's kicked his search into high gear, as he verifies which of his credits are transferrable. His current semester's tuition is covered, but if the sequester isn't resolved, he won't get money for next year.
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He's considering transferring to Florida State or University of Miami, because Florida is one of the states that—through the National Guard—will cover service members' entire tuition with no limit. These funds are from the state instead of federal level.
"Otherwise there’s no way I can afford a 4-year out-of-state tuition," Artale says. Like Weber, he's paying his own way through college.
What Happens Next?
The political climate favors Weber and Artale getting their tuition back. On March 14th, a petition on the White House website protesting the suspension of the TA program met the 100,000-signature threshold that requires a response from the president.
That response could be Obama signing the bill if and when it passes the House.
Members of Congress have also come out publicly against the cuts. Representative Ted Poe, a Republican from Texas, asked why higher education funds were still being sent to Pakistan while we cut higher education funds to U.S. soldiers. He's preparing a bill that would give "the sequester treatment" to Pakistan education aid, which pays for the training of professors as a form of soft diplomacy.
In New York, state legislatures introduced a bill that would give tuition discounts to active service members who are attending New York state schools.
For now, Weber and Artale, along with their fellow active-duty soldiers, are in a hopeful limbo. "I heard I lot of rumors that [tuition assistance is] coming back, because there’s a lot of angry people," Weber says. "But I don’t know."