When I heard about this it made me wonder what other “non-essential” DoD programs out there should be cut. I can not believe the DoD Leadership is using tuition assistance (TA) as a political tool. I didn’t find an exact budget line for TA, but it is estimated to be around $600 million. You can skip to the bottom for my suggestion to active members stuck without TA for now, the rest is me complaining. This is long winded because it really gets me since I think providing junior service members a means for higher education is critical to professional development.
DoD leaders, if you can call them leaders, made an excuse that the program costs too much and service members can use their GI Bill to fund tuition in lieu of TA. This is a piss poor decision that could easily cost the military quality service members. I know when I returned from Iraq I was tempted to get out and finish up my undergrad like a normal person. Instead I decided to re-up for another assignment and use TA to finish my undergrad in the evenings. Had TA been unavailable I might not have re-enlisted since finishing my degree was important to me. Lastly, it is almost a requirement to have or be close to finishing an undergraduate degree if you want to be promoted to E7, so service members will need to work towards a degree with or without TA.
Let’s compare the $600 million to other military personal costs for FY12.
DoD Budget $645.7 billion
Compared TA is .09% (That is similar to going to dinner if you make $50k annually)
When compared to the overall budget TA is nothing, not to mention most military members never touch the TA available to them. I didn’t use TA in the first three years of service, and most of my peers passed on it as well.
Active Duty Base Pay – Officers $18 billion, Enlisted $38.4 billion (Enlisted guys are cheap)
Compared to Officers TA is 3.3%; to Enlisted TA is 1.5%; to total pay is 1% (What was the pay raise this year?)
For the most part pay shouldn’t be cut. However, I think retirement pay could be changed to max out at 75% base pay. It will make retirement decisions easier for those with over 30 years service and would easily save millions annually.
Active Duty Housing (this doesn’t include on-base housing) – Officers $5.6 billion, Enlisted $14.8 billion
Compared to Officers TA is 10.7%; to Enlisted TA is 4%; to total is 2.9%
Housing could easily be cut if the military had policies similar to overseas housing where you are only paid what your rent agreement states. When in Germany my BAH received was exactly my rent due, or close to it due to fluctuating exchange rates. A military wide policy would save millions if not a billion easily.
Separation Pay – $1 billion (doesn’t include Reserves)
Compared TA is 60%
This is where I am all for a cut no matter what, why should a married individual receive extra pay when away from home. Oh, the humanity! The military already gives excessive perks to individuals with dependents; from extra time off, increased housing allowance, and increased substance allowance to name a few. If the military “leaders” truly wanted to take something from the troops instead of equipment and programs, separation pay is where they should start.
*All estimates pulled from DoD Comptroller (Link)
A few items that provide less value than an educated fighting force
This includes multiple areas, so I will start with cleaning staff. My understanding is this started due to deployments (Privates had to prepare for mission and cleaning poop was too much work?) and needs to revert back to the old days. Privates can and should be cleaning the office spaces. If your office doesn’t have junior people suck it up and take 30 minutes a week to clean up after yourself. Even worse, in Germany they had a cleaning crew for the barracks common area, what a joke. This is a small budget was cut in every unit I am guessing it would save at least $500 million.
Hiring contract specialists instead of civilians or using the military has grown way too large over the past decade and a key reason for many military members leaving after their 4-year commitment. The government needs to lower the contract awards for these positions. It makes me sick seeing someone with only 3-4 years experience and no advanced degree being paid well over 100k, not to mention what the government pays the contracting company ($250-750k annually).
The government overpays just to test out new software constantly because someone thought it was a good idea. A smart business would request to test the software for 30-90 days before purchasing to see if it will be of value. Often military members create their own system due to the software lacking the needs of the unit. These good ideas cost units hundreds of thousands if not a few million annually and are rarely used.
TDY (Temporary Duty)
TDY rates are outrageous for the most part. In addition to being excessive, it is an abused system. A personal example; I went TDY for a couple months to Germany and at the end of my TDY collected over 15k after my expenses. That is 15k on top of my pay check that wasn’t touched because I had per diem. You may think well he was eating PB&J and soup, nope I was eating well and went out a few times. This is just one example, I know dozens of individuals with similar experiences. Add up all the people who write off every expense when they would have bought the item during a regular work week and the excess becomes outrageous.
I wont even go into the savings on lowering the orders of ordnance that will sit in storage for 15-25 years before being demolished. Don’t be fooled, it can be produced quick enough before the current reserves are extinguished.
The important part: How can you continue your education without TA
I know it is hard for junior service members to afford school without TA, more so if you have a family to care for. In my last two years, I paid about $8,000 out of pocket to finish up my undergrad because TA is easy to max out. Below are a few suggestions that may help you.
There are several scholarships available for active duty members pursuing undergraduate degrees. I recently covered a few when discussing graduate scholarships, a quick google search will reveal hundreds. Your local education center should also be able to help you out.
Some, not all, but some universities will let you defer your payment until the end of school year. This is great for two reasons; you can collect interest on the money in your savings and can pay off the balance right before tax season. Review the IRS education page for information on tax credits, this was my answer after maxing out TA every year. The tax credit is effectively additional TA, but you have to front the money until you get a tax refund.
While I think the federal student loan program is a joke of an interest rate, I was offered a personal loan at a lower rate and larger amount just this week, it may be a good option. Additionally, you may be eligible for a federal grant, so fill out the FAFSA form even if you don’t plan on taking a loan. Similar to paying for school on your own, a student loan has tax benefits to help defray the costs of a loan. I would only take out a small loan that you can easily make monthly payments without effecting your budget.
Green-to-Gold (or service equivalent)
If you definitely want to remain in the military, the program will pay you to attend college and then you return as a butter bar. I think this is a great program for top performing Soldiers, and it is worth looking into. You should evaluate a career of an officer vs enlisted though, the responsibilities differ more than they are the same.
GI Bill (last resort)
The genius option provided by our military leadership. There are a few reasons I think this is a bad option.
For one, you can use the GI Bill to pay for a more expensive graduate degree, this becomes a moot point if you expend your GI Bill for a Bachelors. A large percentage of SGM/E9 in today’s military have a Masters degree and you should expect it to become a requirement for promotion in the future. Unless DoD wants to foot the bill for a Masters program like they do for field grade officers I don’t see how the military can maintain an educated fighting force.
You may decide to leave the military. The GI Bill gives you the opportunity to attend school for almost nothing. Without the GI Bill I would not have the ability to attend an MBA program that costs $40-60k a year just for tuition. If you have any plans to work towards an advanced degree I would leave your GI Bill benefits alone.
Last point, transferring benefits to dependents. Talk about savings for you old guys, being able to send your kid to college for free. That is incentive enough not to touch the GI Bill if you have a tot at home and plan on a full military career.
Why I find this so ridiculous
TA allowed me to take classes in the evening and eventually completing my degree while on active duty. Some people will say there is no need, they are fools. But there is a reason large corporations provide similar TA programs. Professional development goes beyond your function in the office. I took electives that were relevant to my military career, enhancing my daily output in the office.
My friend Tony is currently completing his degree using TA and is no doubt one of the best senior NCOs in the Army. As a future CSM the military is doing Tony, and those like him, a disservice by not helping him gain additional knowledge outside of traditional military training. The individuals using TA are rarely slackers; more often they are the key leaders in our units taking the initiative and extra effort to enhance themselves during their free time.
No matter what you do, continue to work towards that degree even if TA goes away for good. A degree will be a benefit to your career, your life and your future.
Until next time, Keep on Truckin’… Watson