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Credential Assistance, one of the Army’s premier education benefit programs, has become a “catastrophic success” since its initiation as a pilot program in 2020, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said at a budget hearing on Capitol Hill last week. Now it may cost too much to be sustainable.

Wormuth was explaining why both Credential Assistance (CA) and its parent program, Tuition Assistance (TA), are up for review, after being questioned by Representative John Carter, whose Texas district includes Fort Cavazos. Although the process of review is not unheard of, in this case Carter said he is “deeply concerned” about it.

Exactly what changes will result from the review remain unclear, but policy experts say the outcomes will likely be detrimental both to the approximately 117,000 soldiers that utilize the benefits each year and the colleges and universities they attend.

“It’s a good program. We support it,” Wormuth told House lawmakers. “The challenge we have is we, frankly, didn’t put any guardrails around the program to help us scope it.”

She added that while no decisions have been made, Army leaders were aiming “just to try to manage the cost of the program a little bit better.”

Since news of the review broke last week, both Wormuth and Army public affairs officers have been hesitant to describe potential changes as “cuts,” instead describing them as “restructuring.” But higher education advocates expect that regardless of how the Army frames it, unless the review begets an increase in funding—which is highly unlikely—the results won’t be positive.

“There are essentially two different levers the Army could pull,” said one military education expert who requested anonymity for fear of jeopardizing the organization he represents: either trim the grant amounts or tighten the qualification restrictions. And while the former is a more direct cut, in the end, the results are essentially the same.

“Either one of those approaches restricts soldier choice and opportunity in terms of the schools at which they could use that benefit or when they could use it,” he said. “So to me, there’s really not a whole lot of difference from the institutional perspective in terms of which is worse.”

‘I Hope It’s Not True’

Currently, minimal regulations apply to the programs, which, combined, cost the Army about $278 million last year.

Tuition Assistance, the larger of the two, provides any active duty service member with a reimbursement of $250 per credit hour. Except for a ceiling of 16 credits per year and 130 (or the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree) in total, there’s no limit to what or where a service member may study.

Policy experts say Credential Assistance is even less regulated. First introduced as a subprogram of TA in 2020, CA is not formally acknowledged by law or the Department of Defense in the same way as its parent program. So by default, the only restrictions that apply to CA are the ones in place for TA. And because of the structural misalignment between traditional baccalaureate degrees and short-term credentials, that gets complicated.

Will Hubbard, vice president for veterans and military policy at Veterans Education Success, an advocacy group that works to protect federal military and veteran education benefits, said his organization recognizes the Army’s “very real” budgetary pressures for the upcoming fiscal year and values ensuring that CA dollars are spent “wisely and efficiently.” But even so, he remains concerned about looming TA cuts. 

Any changes could hurt not just students but the Army itself. Introduced in 1999 and expanded following the terrorist attacks of September 11, Tuition Assistance has served as a primary recruitment tool for new soldiers. At a time when the Army is falling well below its recruitment goals, changing the benefit could be especially damaging.

“We appreciate the Service’s interest in ensuring that they’re stewards of taxpayer dollars,” Hubbard said. “But Tuition Assistance dollars serve a long-term purpose of being valuable both to the individual and the Service, and therefore, any cuts to this program, now or in the future, would be met with strong opposition.”

So far, the only concrete consideration the Army has announced is reductions for CA. As of April 1, the service said it is looking to cut the credentialing benefits from $4,000 per year—with no maximum total benefit—to $1,000 per year, never exceeding $4,000 total.

David Schejbal, president of Excelsior University, an online institution that serves a large number of active-duty military students, said he was more open to the idea of tighter CA regulations than changes to TA policy. He said he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the Army sought to ensure that the credentials they pay for “actually benefit soldiers.” 

“That’s a legitimate thing to do,” he added. “But I don’t think it applies to traditional degrees, because there’s so much evidence out there that shows that those degrees benefit in multiple ways, not just financially.”

Schejbal finds it “flabbergasting” that the Army is even considering cuts to TA.

“I don’t know what the political benefit would be to one side or the other here. And from what I can tell, there’s absolutely no national benefit,” beyond saving money, he said. “This country needs a strong national defense. Tuition Assistance is a strong driver for recruitment … So for crying out loud, what the heck?”

Even before cuts, the Army’s TA program offers $500 less per year than the Department of Defense recommends. If the Army were to cut that value any further, Schejbal said it would likely force many military-serving colleges—especially smaller ones like his, where approximately a third of the student body is active-duty—to charge service members the difference, boost the number of civilian students paying full tuition to underwrite the cost, or make cuts to other areas of the budget, such as wraparound support services.

“A lot of schools simply will say, ‘You’re welcome to come here, but we’re not going to lower our tuition just because you’re not getting reimbursed,” he said. “So they won’t have the money to go.”

Schejbal noted that the blow colleges face would depend on the size of the cut, but at the end of the day, changes to tuition assistance would likely mean fewer affordable, quality college options. As a result, military student enrollment would decline.

“Let me put it this way,” he said. “I hope [the concept of cuts] is not true.”

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