MARINE CORPS AIR STATION BEAUFORT, S.C. – Tuition assistance was a hot-button issue during a town hall session between Marines and their families and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff here today.
The first question for Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey was about the program. The Marine Corps, Army and Air Force had eliminated the program due to the demands of sequestration. Congress has passed legislation requiring the services to reinstate the program, but provides no extra money for it.
DOD officials agree that the tuition assistance program is important, Pentagon spokeswoman Navy Cdr. Leslie Hull-Ryde said today in a written statement. The program enables service members to further their education, benefiting both themselves and their branch of service, she said.
The legislation has been sent to the White House for President Barack Obama's signature and the department will, of course, comply with the act, Hull-Ryde said. Still, "this legislation would require the services to make difficult and very thoughtful decisions on how to fund tuition assistance throughout the remainder of fiscal 2013 without impacting readiness," she said.
Dempsey told the Marines and their families that the Joint Chiefs' decision to cut the program was not taken lightly. They made the decision because readiness accounts – which include tuition assistance – are already nearly empty. "We're halfway through the (fiscal) year and we are 80 percent spent," he said. "Frankly we are struggling to get to the end of the year."
How to get to the end of the year is his problem, not the Marines', "but you do have to understand that there's going to be some things done in the last half of this year that are going to be difficult to understand, but necessary," he said.
These decisions, he said, need to be made so the United States can send the carriers, send the Marine air wings, send the Army combat teams or Air Force squadrons where they are needed. "We're on that much of an edge," the chairman said. "It will get better in (fiscal) '14, and by (fiscal) '15 it'll be manageable."
Tuition assistance throughout the services is a $700 million investment, Dempsey said. "What we said was we would continue to fund it for people in it, but if someone wants to join they are going to have to wait, because for the rest of this year we can't afford it," he said. That alone would save $200 million.
Officials are going to have to examine all programs – including tuition assistance – carefully for savings, the chairman noted. It is an excellent program, "but it may be dialed back," he said.
He reminded the Marines and their families that they do have access to the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill. "Our commitment to education is sincere," he said. "We're just going to have to do some things in the short term to get through the year."