The U.S. military’s decision to stop paying financial aid for active-duty service members during the shutdown is jeopardizing their academic progress and forcing some to withdraw from classes, according to officials at colleges with large military populations.
Since October 1, branches of the armed forces have not processed existing applications for tuition assistance or authorized new requests. Military educational programs were not included in the law passed just before the shutdown that protects military pay from the shutdown. The Army said in a notice on its site that the tuition assistance program remains halted even though it ordered most civilian employees back to work over the weekend.
The Defense Department’s tuition assistance program last year provided about 300,000 service members with money to enroll in college courses. Eligible service members can receive a maximum of $250 per semester credit hour, with a $4,500 annual limit.
American Public University, one of the largest recipients of tuition assistance dollars, said it was encouraging students affected by the lapse in funding to enroll in courses starting next month instead of taking October classes.
If the government remains shut down this Friday, the university plans to drop all active-duty service members who were supposed to receive tuition assistance from October courses, unless they are able to secure other funding sources such as the GI Bill or federal financial aid programs administered by the Education Department, according to a spokesman, Brian Muys.
Muys declined to say how many students would be dropped or had already withdrawn from classes, but acknowledged that hundreds of students were being affected by the suspension of aid.
At the University of Phoenix, which also enrolls large numbers of service members, some students have also dropped out of classes, according to Ryan Rauzon, a spokesman. But he said he couldn’t provide a precise number because it would constitute a material disclosure that the publicly traded company was not ready to make before its earnings call later this month.
Rauzon said that Phoenix was not charging students who were enrolled in classes but decided to drop out after the military rejected their requests for tuition assistance this month.
Officials at Central Texas College, where about a third of tuition revenue comes from the military’s tuition assistance program, said the impact of the shutdown on their students was growing by the day.
So far, 101 Army students had been rejected for tuition assistance and if the shutdown extends into next week, the university estimated that more than 500 additional students would be affected, according to Barbara Merlo, a college spokeswoman. Figures for service members in other branches of the military were not available, she said.
“Our staff worldwide is working with students to offer alternative sources of funding and to encourage them to pursue CLEP tests and other alternative ways of earning credit,” Central Texas College Chancellor Thomas Klincar said in a statement, referring to the College Level Examination Program, which allows students to receive credit if they achieve minimum scores on a standardized test.
At the University of Maryland University College, a spokesman said that it was unclear how many of the 1,500 active service members registered for classes starting later this month were affected by the tuition assistance suspension, but that the university had extended its deadline for withdrawing from classes. (Note: A previous version of this paragraph incorrectly reported, based on information provided by UMUC, that 60 M.B.A. students had withdrawn from classes. In fact, the university says, only one active-duty service member in an M.B.A. class had withdrawn; the reason was unclear.)
Other institutions also said that they were working to accommodate service members who found themselves unable to afford classes without the benefit of military financial aid.
Although the shutdown has suspended education funding for students on active duty, the government has so far continued processing veterans’ education benefits. But that could change if the shutdown persists through the end of this month, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki told members of Congress Wednesday. If Congress does not fully fund the VA by the end of the month, the agency would have to stop paying veterans’ benefits, including education benefits, starting November 1, Shinseki said.
Northeastern University announced this week that it would cover the costs for any of its 100-plus active-duty service members who could not access funding because of the shutdown. National University also said that benefit would be available to its population of nearly 3,900 active-duty service members.
Ashford University said that it would cover the amount of tuition assistance that eligible service members would have received for students scheduled to start a course from October 1 through October 8.
Southern New Hampshire University announced that it, too, would follow suit and cover tuition assistance for active-duty military personnel.
“We are stepping up and covering the tuition for our enlisted students. Again,” SNHU president Paul LeBlanc wrote on Twitter. “House Republicans should be ashamed. Again.”
In an email, LeBlanc estimated that providing the benefit to service members would cost the institution about $500,000, adding that it "just just seems like the right thing to do in the face of the madness on Capitol Hill right now."
The tuition assistance program was in jeopardy earlier this year when branches of the military proposed reductions to the benefit as a result of mandatory budget cuts. Under pressure from service member advocates and members of Congress, the program was later restored.