The cuts come as a result of a spike in applications for TA since this past spring, when many personnel were given stay-at-home orders. This second-order effect of the coronavirus pandemic led to an increase in airmen enrolling in college programs, which has also prompted an increase in requests for assistance.
How Many Service Members Are Impacted?
According to the AF Times, a total of 80,430 service members used the Air Force’s Tuition Assistance program, which is a fundamental tool for recruitment and retention. Based on those numbers, the Air Force projects a similar number for fiscal year 2021.
With that increase in the number of applicants, the Air Force is trying to ensure that every service member can get some assistance, even if that means cutting the cap available to each applicant. While extra funding was available for 2020’s increase in students, to the tune of nearly $18 million, the Air Force wants to avoid seeking extra funding for the next fiscal year.
The Air Force has no plans to change the credit-hour limits, which will remain at $250 per semester hour, and $166.66 per quarter hour.
As with anything in the military, there is the possibility of a waiver for exceeding the annual limit. Under extremely unique circumstances, like a degree program requiring a lab or non-traditional degree deadlines, waivers can be granted to exceed the $3,750 cap by one semester hour or two quarter hours.
Lieutenant General Brian T. Kelly, the Air Force personnel chief, stated in yesterday’s new release that “tuition assistance aids in the development of a highly educated and skilled military force. By making these adjustments, we ensure this key benefit continues for all airmen and space professionals.” Indeed, tuition assistance is a tremendous benefit for today’s service members, especially when civilian students are struggling with excessive student loan debt.
Cuts Are The Best Option
Lieutenant General Kelley also noted, “In 2013, under sequestration, tuition assistance was suspended for some time and our service members were negatively impacted. As we go forward and budgets get tight, we want to prevent that from happening again and we made hard decisions in order to keep this program viable and accessible to our force.”
If the money dries up before the fiscal year ends on September 30, 2021, then those service members whose applications were not approved will have to wait until the following fiscal year beginning October 1, 2021.
These are certainly challenging times, and it is great that many institutes of higher learning are finding ways to adapt. The Air Force is the first to make such cuts, and it may not be long before the other services follow in their boot steps.
Robert Haynes is a retired Army infantryman who has a squad of kids and is married to an active duty Soldier. He is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, who spent his last few years in the Army as a Drill Sergeant. He is now a full-time dad, freelance writer, and out-of-work comedian.