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The U.S. Army announced Friday that it will freeze all new applications for service members' tuition assistance, temporarily eliminating a much relied-on program for soldiers and sending universities scrambling to identify alternative sources of funding for their students.

In response to the continuing budget crisis in Washington and the automatic spending cuts that went into effect March 1, Department of Defense Comptroller Robert F. Hale has recommended “significant reductions” in the tuition assistance programs offered by the different service branches. The Marine Corps last week became the first service branch to announce the change, and the Air Force and Navy are said to be considering similar cuts.

The change will not affect the hundreds of thousands of service members who currently receive tuition assistance. It is not clear how many service members enroll at institutions of higher education every month, but a report by the American Council on Education suggests their enrollment more than doubled between 2009 and 2012.

The spending cuts -- also known as sequestration -- were originally envisioned to force members of Congress to compromise on a plan to address the federal budget deficit. The cuts involve slashing more than $1.2 trillion from government agencies over the next decade.

Unless Congress passes a deal to replace sequestration with a different deficit reduction plan, the lack of tuition assistance could have a devastating impact on the 1 million service members the Defense Department estimates will transition back into society over the next five years, said Michael Dakduk, executive director of Student Veterans of America.

“Higher education is increasingly important in today’s labor market,” Dakduk said. “If [military service members are] going to be successful, they’re going to have to pursue some postsecondary credential. All the signs are there: We have to value higher education. There’s no way around it.”

Dakduk credited the tuition assistance he received after getting out of the Marine Corps in 2008 for enabling him to pursue a bachelor’s degree. “It was meaningful to me,” Dakduk said.

Administrators from colleges and universities with large numbers of enrolled service members said it is too early to say how the change will affect their institutions, although some said the change will probably affect their enrollment.

Historical data support their concerns. When the tuition assistance programs in 1999 were changed to cover 100 percent of the costs -- up from 75 percent -- enrollment among service members spiked, said James Selbe, a senior vice president at the University of Maryland University College.

“We were shocked this week that the Marine Corps and Army took this course of action,” said Jim Sweizer, vice president of military programs at the American Public University System. “This is the first time anything like this has happened.”

APUS, which operates the American Military University and the American Public University, is the country’s No. 1 provider of academic programs to the military. Slightly more than a third of its approximately 105,300 net course registrations -- the number of courses students remain in past the point where they can drop it without penalty -- are funded by tuition assistance programs, according to Defense Department data. The average service member enrolls in three courses per year, Sweizer said.

To balance out the loss of the tuition assistance programs, Sweizer said that APUS will educate its prospective students on alternative funding options, including G.I. Bill benefits and federal financial aid.

“We’ve got to do what we can to make our students educated consumers to let them know what’s out there,” Sweizer said. “On the optimistic side, those sources of funding do exist, so it’s not like they’re going to be cut off completely.” Still, Sweizer said service members will face some “tough decision making” about pursuing higher education.

While the Air Force and Navy have yet to decide if they will continue to offer tuition assistance, administrators said they expected them to follow suit.

“I’m looking forward to praising one or more branches if they choose not to follow suit, but that remains to be seen,” Dakduk said. “I hope this is not political posturing. If it is, we need to get past it.... Higher education can't be the thing we eliminate when we continue to do this posturing. It’s invaluable.”

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