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Military Tuition Assistance: Understanding TA and VA Educational Benefits

Podcast featuring Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr., Lt. Col (retired), U.S. Marine Corps; Program Director, School of Business and
John Aldrich, Vice President, Military Outreach, American Military University

The government offers valuable educational benefits for military servicemembers, but how and when to use those benefits can be confusing. In this episode, AMU professor and former Marine Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr. talks with military education expert John Aldrich about tuition assistance, or TA, for active-duty servicemembers, as well as veteran educational benefits through the VA. Learn the differences in these benefits as well as the existing gaps. For example, learn about the need to raise the tuition assistance cap, which hasn’t changed in 20 years despite rising tuition costs, disparities in housing allowance for veteran servicemembers pursuing an online education, and more. 

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Read the Transcript:                                                                        

Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr.: Welcome to the podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr. Today, we’re going to talk about tuition assistance and veterans assistance for servicemembers who are seeking their education while serving and why these benefits are so critical. My guest today is John Aldrich. John oversees all military and corporate outreach activities, and is the main liaison between the university and the Department of Defense agencies for American Military University.

Prior to joining AMU in 2006, Mr. Aldrich served as the education services specialist for the Marine Corps Base, Twentynine Palms, California, director of Career Services and job placement at the Technical College of the Low Country, Buford, South Carolina, and education specialist for Navy college programs, Sicily, Italy. John, it’s great to have you on the podcast.

John Aldrich: Thanks, Larry. I really appreciate being here today. I was listening to what you’re saying about my past work experience, it seems like a long time ago, but that’s 15 years I’ve been at American Military University and looking forward to this podcast.

Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr.: Absolutely. And as I was reading that, I was thinking about my service with the Marine Corps, I’ve seen those bases, I’ve walked those grounds.

So let’s start our conversation by talking about tuition assistance or TA as some refer to it, then we’ll cover some of the veterans’ benefits. Can you explain a little bit about what TA is and what it provides?

John Aldrich: Sure. Tuition assistance, or TA, is I think one of the greatest benefits that is provided active-duty servicemembers. I’m not sure the exact amount of years, but I think it’s been since around 1944. It’s run by the Department of Defense and tuition assistance, or TA, it’s basically a program that provides financial assistance to servicemembers for voluntary off-duty education.

You know, they have education while they’re on active duty. They may be learning a job specialty with the military, but this is a benefit that really is a voluntary education experience. When I was an ed specialist, I used to tell Marines and sailors when they’d come into the office, “Think about this as a scholarship.” It’s something you don’t have to pay back unless you don’t get a passing grade. But think about this as a scholarship.

Really it supports their professional goals. For example, when I was on active duty, I was in Spain and I took Spanish. And then when I was in Sicily, Italy, I took Italian as a civil servant or a contractor. And so that was for my own personal experience. But then there is your professional development too, where servicemembers can take classes that align with their military occupational specialty or rating.

TA is available for courses that are offered in the classroom or online. The only thing is they have to be approved at associate level, bachelor’s, or master’s degree level. Like I said, it’s a great benefit. It’s been used for a number of years by servicemembers for different things.

For example, servicemembers might be looking to transition out after they get off active duty, maybe after four or five years, and maybe they just finished one term and they’re just taking some courses that they need to get into their college.

I was one of those people. I took the exact classes I needed to get into the University of Rhode Island without having to take an ACT or an SAT exam. So I took 30 semester hours, knew the exact classes I needed.

Or it could be someone who’s on active duty and can fit in two or three classes a year. It takes about seven years to get an associate degree, and about 10 to get a bachelor’s degree, depending on what their operational tempo is.

But, like I said, it’s a great benefit. And each service has it. It’s provided 100% when I was in active duty, but it used to be that the service would provide 75% of the benefit, and the servicemember would pay the other 25%.

Now the Congress has passed that that services will cover up to 100%, but it’s capped. Some services have a maximum cap per fiscal year of $4,500. Some are $3,750. It really depends on the service. You’ll be happy to hear, Larry, I know you were a Marine, the Marines have kept it at $4,500. So it’s a great scholarship.

Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr.: This is great to really understand the history behind this because for myself, as I deployed, this was one of the main things that we stressed to our Marines that make sure that when we come back, first, come back safely. But then, if at all possible, if you could further your education make sure that we were doing that. And so this helps me to really understand where this all started and some of the ins and outs of this.

So I saw it from the end of approving those forms that you talked about, the TA. So you talked a little bit about just that benefit and transition. Would you say also it aids in recruitment? Is that something that helps the recruiters when they’re out there?

John Aldrich: There’s a lot of studies out there that have looked at this from a retention standpoint, and there’s some misunderstandings of that. But when you ask a servicemember, when they do surveys to servicemembers, what is the number one reason why you came on active duty? They may not know tuition assistance, but they’re going to say number one or number two is education.

Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr.: I would say that many people that I think of, they didn’t know anything else, they didn’t know where they were going to school or anything initially, or weren’t ready for that decision. That makes sense. So is this tied into other existing benefits that it’s an added or additional or amplifies something that’s out there?

John Aldrich: With regard to, if you’re on active duty, this is the main benefit that you can use to go to school. I mean, you could use federal financial aid, all active duty are eligible for military tuition assistance. Not all active duty are eligible for federal financial aid, but there’s a good amount of servicemembers out there who do use federal financial aid in conjunction with military tuition assistance.

The pandemic was a perfect example of something that just accelerated military tuition assistance. I believe that more money was spent by the Department of Defense on military tuition assistance during that time, and federal financial aid, because a lot of servicemembers just like us, when the pandemic first started, our jobs had changed, the nature of their jobs. Who would ever think that an active duty member would be at home working remotely? That’s really unheard of.

And there was a lot of downtime, especially for junior servicemembers who have very hands-on type jobs. So they really opened the door to take more classes. Servicemembers took a lot of classes. And so when they had exhausted their military tuition assistance benefit for that year, many of them started taking federal financial aid. So that’s one of the others.

There are some other aspects that you could get into with combining some of your tuition assistance with Post-9/11 benefits. But, by and large, the three main, I should probably say four if you’re including paying out of pocket, but very few servicemembers want to pay out of pocket. So it’s usually tuition assistance, then federal financial aid, scholarships—there’s a number of scholarships out there for active duty servicemembers and their family members, in particular spouses—and paying out of pocket, of course.

Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr.: Okay. Sad to say that I almost forgot that I combined my long journey for my education, it was TA and then I utilized some of my others. It’s great that it’s not the only benefit, but it’s an additional benefit that we have.

But I always like to give the good and the bad so everyone knows what they’re getting into so they’re able to make the best decision for themselves. So what doesn’t work well? Is it all upside, or was there some unintended consequences of the TA?

John Aldrich: I guess the one downside would be there are certain years, it doesn’t happen often, but services run out of money. We are very fortunate this year, the Air Force in particular, they went over their budget for TA, but were able to appropriate money from other areas. I guess that’s the downside.

There are certain years that the government shuts down. When the government shuts down, the servicemembers can’t use tuition assistance, but those that qualify can use federal financial aid, and a lot of servicemembers, especially in the junior ranks, do qualify for that.

If you’re looking at a downside, it pays tuition, it does pay some fees. TA does pay some fees, but not many. The servicemembers will have to come up with some out-of-pocket funding to pay for any costs that are not associated with tuition.

Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr.: Now, we opened up talking about two similar sounding things TA and VA. And I just want to be clear because both are great, but seem like distinct differences. So the VA benefits today were prescribed a generation or two ago. So what are VA benefits that are relevant to their education?

John Aldrich: So many differences between TA and VA that I probably should just cover a couple of them because the rest would be over my head. But I’ll talk about some of the more important ones. When you look at military tuition assistance, that is for an active-duty servicemember only. And that’s provided by the Department of Defense.

The other benefit that you’re referring to is GI Bill benefits. That has been around since the end of World War II. That era benefit was probably the greatest benefit of all time, not to sound like a cliché.

Then in 2008, Congress came up with the Post-9/11 benefit and really I’m really glad they did. They should be applauded, because prior to that, the Vietnam era bill was good. But in between the Vietnam era, which ended I think in the late 70s or mid-70s, there were a couple programs out there that just left thousands of veterans without education benefits.

So, for example, if they wanted to pursue a type of a trade, it really pigeonholed veterans into specific education programs. Then in 2008 or 2009, I can’t remember the exact year, the Post-9/11 benefit came out and it really was a tremendous and well-received benefit. There are differences. They’re similar, but not, if you think about it this way.

TA pays primarily just for tuition and some fees. There aren’t many fees. The Post-9/11 benefit, or Chapter 33, covers tuition and fees. It covers money for housing, so you have housing benefits. There’s a yearly stipend for books, $1,000 a year, I don’t think that’s changed. And then the one other benefit, which is it provides a benefit for veterans who want to move from a rural area so they can actually attend school if that’s what they choose to do.

Whereas military tuition assistance has a set cap for schools that you’re going to, for example, in some services are $4,500. Other services like the Air Force, they had such high usage in 2020 that they lowered the cap to $3,750, so you can take less courses and the benefit will last longer.

Your entire time you’re on active duty, whether it’s one year or 30 years, you can use military tuition assistance. One of the key differences in that and the Post-9/11, is Post-9/11 is very specific to time. You have 36 months to use your benefit. There are some exceptions to that.

For example, Congress just passed something last year, I don’t remember exactly what the bill was, but what they passed was that veterans in certain STEM programs, it takes a little bit longer, and extended that benefit, I believe by one year.

And one of the differences in tuition assistance, getting back to that and Post-9/11, is for public schools. If you’re using your post 9/11 benefits, all your tuition and fees are paid for, for in-state students. And then at the private—or even if you wanted to go to a foreign school, believe it or not you can use your benefits if you’re in Europe or another foreign school, as long as it’s accredited—and they cap that. Now the cap I think is around $25,000 or $26,000 per academic year.

That is a lot of money to go to school, not to mention the housing benefit that goes along with that. So that’s some of the key differences that I’m aware of between tuition assistance and Post-9/11 benefits.

Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr.: That’s amazing. And as you were discussing that, that was taking me back down memory lane. You asked about when I came in. So I had the GI Bill prior to the 9/11. As you were talking about it, they had a great opportunity. Once I got close to exhausting that I was able to transition. Is that still possible? I was able to go, and hopefully this may help some of the, I would say more mature, military members that were thinking on utilizing their benefits. I moved from the Montgomery to the Post-9/11. They adjusted. There was actually more money there. Is that still possible?

John Aldrich: They did. I don’t know exactly when they’re phasing out that particular Montgomery GI Bill benefit, but I think it is this year. And that individual who had any remaining funds could use that in the Post-9/11, which they both have pros and cons. But if I were going to choose the difference between the two, I would jump right on the Post-9/11. The housing allowance alone is quite nice if you’re just working part-time, or if you’re on campus or even if you’re not on campus. And I’ll talk about that a little bit later, on what I think is the disparity in education for veterans’ benefits between learning modalities. Whether you’re on ground studying in a traditional brick-and-mortar setting, or if you’re an online student, the housing allowance is different.

Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr.: We’re back. And today we’re talking with John Aldrich about TA and VA benefits. Let’s get back to that conversation. Online learning is growing so much and a lot are seeing that this is the best way for them to complete their education. So let’s go right to that. Should the housing allowance and other overhead costs, all those things that are factored in, should that be included for a military student that’s earning their degree online as well as on campus?

John Aldrich: Absolutely, Larry. Although the benefit for Post-9/11 or the GI Bill, I’ll use that terminology because most people use that, they’re the most generous ever offered. It really, truly is amazing. But the logic for such generosity was based upon a misconception that transitioning servicemembers would prefer to attend classes online.

When you look at James Webb, former Secretary of the Navy, he was the first one that came up with Post-9/11 benefits. And I can’t speak for James Webb, maybe he’ll comment on this podcast, but he was the one that came up with the 100% housing allowance if you’re in an on-ground environment.

Well, that’s just not realistic today. And at the time there was no housing allowance for online learners. Yet servicemembers, 87% take their courses online, 87%. But when you get out of the service, does that mean you’re going to go to a brick-and-mortar school? No, you’re probably going to continue on because you have a life, you have a family, and you have work. Thinking like that, it made sense, but if you think about it, it overlooked the proliferation of online programs.

Back when they first did this in 2008, there was about 70% servicemembers attending college through some type of distance-learning modality. Now it’s 87%. But in 2010, the president did sign an assistance act where it gave 50% of the national average for E5s, 50% of the housing allowance for that. It’s still really unfortunate. If you think about it, all veterans are not treated equally. They should be though, irrespective of their taking a course online or on campus.

And I would think that their housing expenses were back then, and are, identical. If you think about it, once you you’re an adult learner, you have a job, you have a family. And given that 87%, that was the last count of service members going online, they should have the same convenience and flexibility of taking online classes that they did when they were on active duty as when they’re a veteran. So, I just think that I would like to see veterans who study online to be treated more equally.

And thankfully many of veterans service organizations and military service organizations are looking at this with the House Veteran’s Affairs Committee, looking at this very thing. And I know the VA is taking this very seriously. Veterans speak very loudly about this issue, and I think that we actually may see something change. I’m hopeful that something will change within the next 12 months. I think it’d be very exciting.

Even, for example, American Military University, or American Public University System, is the largest online provider of veterans in the country, but they only get half of their benefit. Obviously there’s a need, there’s a correlation between life and their need to have convenient and flexible time to go to school. It’s not just at American Military University, it’s being looked at across many universities, if not most, have online programs now and servicemembers and veterans gravitate towards those because it’s the most convenient and flexible way to learn.

I hope it’s before the end of this fiscal year, which will be September 30th by the government. I know that’s probably unrealistic, but, if not, the next fiscal year, fiscal year ’22, I think that we should see that finally.

Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr.: As we’re looking at things now, and we’re coming out of a pandemic and everyone’s talking about the economy and what we’re seeing. And education, along with everything else, housing, all these things are skyrocketing. I talked to some people the other day and just looking at the costs that are just going up. We talked about the amount of TA at the beginning, and I think back to myself, it sounds like a lot. Is TA covering everything?

John Aldrich: No, no. And if you look at some of the stats out there, average cost of tuition over the last 20 years has gone up 175%. Tuition assistance hasn’t changed in 20 years. So there are organizations, the National Association of Institutions for Military Education Services, and we have been speaking with Department of Defense officials about possibly raising the tuition cap.

Now that’s just one group, but there’s other groups out there that are asking the same things because the services have come to us, and we’re really glad they have. They’ve come to schools that have served the military community for the last 50, 60 years. And even though American Military University has only been there 30 years, we’ve been serving servicemembers and we have a lot of servicemembers students. So Department of Defense leadership is asking questions. For example, you talked earlier, you asked me about readiness and retention. And in the readiness thing, having someone who is educated and mission-driven is a benefit to not only society, but the servicemember and the service.

You think about all the high-tech equipment, millions of dollars of equipment that servicemembers work on. It’s a win-win, but the tuition hasn’t gone up. And they’ve asked us to provide more STEM programs, which we have, and most schools have offered that. And it’s great. That type of technology is great for everyone. It’s more expensive for a school to produce those types of programs, and it generally takes longer for the individual to complete those types of programs. Not much longer, but it does take longer.

So when you’re investing in that type of infrastructure, whether it’s through technology, or on-ground campuses, it’s going to cost more money. But I will have to say that we are asking those types of questions, and so far have been pretty responsive.

I think the Marine Corps, if I read, is upping their tuition. They’re the first service, you’ll be happy to hear that Larry, to go beyond the $4,500 to $5,250, which we’re pretty excited to see the Marine Corps take the lead in that. You know, as a sailor, I spent the majority of my time as a fleet Marine, and I really enjoyed that, so I was glad to see them do that. So that wasn’t because of our organization, that was because the Marine Corps really sees a need—and not that the other services don’t—but they’re the first ones to jump on raising that tuition cap, because it hasn’t changed. You think about the TA cap is $250 per semester hour or credit hour. And then if you go to a quarter-hour school, it’s $166.

Now, American Military University tuition that we charge for our military members is at $250, but most schools, if you look at most state schools, they’re $300, $400 a semester hour. So to serve servicemembers, they’re really having to reduce their tuition significantly, and that difference is starting to cause some schools to reconsider how they want to, or if they want to, continue working with active duty servicemembers.

So it’s a great question. It’s out there, both for housing allowance, probably the hottest topic for GI bill or Post-9/11 benefits, and raising the tuition assistance cap to take advantage of some of the newer technology, like STEM programs. And given that there hasn’t been a tuition increase with tuition assistance program in 20 years, I think it’s about time that that’s looked at.

Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr.: Keeping that in mind, as most servicemembers we put our head down and just do our job. We take whatever benefits that we are told are available. So we’re not so often looking to push change or know much about that, because we’re focused on doing our job. But someone like you who spent a lot of time working and can see the history, if you were to package it up, and maybe if someone that could make change were listening, what would be the top five things that you would say our military need and that they’ve earned?

John Aldrich: They really need consistent tuition assistance where, when money is budgeted, it’s budgeted for that program. A lot of times servicemembers, just what you said. We are trained to put our head down and deal with the circumstances at the time, and that’s really what you want out of a servicemember. You want them to make do with what they have, especially when you’re in the field. But you want to have them supplied as best as you possibly can.

And sometimes there’s been some inconsistency with that, with the tuition assistance program. I’m by no means a leader in the Department of Defense industry, I know there’s competing budgets and things. But when you talk to a servicemember and you start eroding these types of benefits, they can get pretty upset. I think from a retention perspective, I think having a more consistent with the tuition assistance program.

And I’m going to talk a little bit about the Army just right now. One of the things, and other services are doing a little bit, but there’s licensure programs. Not every servicemember wants or needs to get a college education. There’s so many opportunities out there where certain people can earn licensures. And let’s say you have a particular MOS in cybersecurity, and to get that job, a degree is great. And sometimes a degree and that credential, or maybe that licensure program that you need to get that, or maybe it’s in computer technology.

So what I’m getting at, is the ability to use tuition assistance for other things than academic programs and the Army just so happens to have, they call it a credentialing assistance program. I don’t know how many credentials, license credentials, that they have in that program. I think it’s a couple of hundred. But soldiers can now use certain amounts of tuition assistance every fiscal year to earn a credential.

And it doesn’t have to be in their military occupational specialty. Someone could have a medical background, a medical MOS, maybe a combat medic, and try to earn a certificate in some type of computer technology. So having the flexibility of that benefit to be allowed to be used for other things, or in conjunction with an academic program, would be really good.

Top on my list would be raising the tuition cap. It’s time. Like I said, I know that the Department of Defense, when they put a budget together, if you’re the Navy, you have ships at sea, and you have things happen. That money has to go certain places. But I think that because the benefit is one of the reasons servicemembers come in, to retain them and to help towards readiness and educating them, I think raising that tuition assistance cap would be significant.

Now, I’m going to move over to the VA. And one of the things that I would have to say, and getting right at it, is making the benefit equal for all veterans. Whether you’re studying online or you’re studying on-ground, you still have the same needs. You have families. You have jobs. There should not be any difference in the housing allowance benefits. So like I said, I think that’ll change.

Along with that, the GI bill has far greater applications for usage when you compare it to military tuition assistance, but it does have certain things that you can’t do. It pays for some, but let’s say I wanted to become a machine operator and I didn’t want to go to an academic program, or one of the credentials that you could go to.

But being able to expand that usage into other areas of business. Maybe I wanted to open up a business and to be able to use that. So that’s a lot of talk of what’s going on with the VA today and our veterans. They know that benefit’s there. Not everybody wants to, they may have gotten their degree while they used the tuition assistance program, and now they want to use that to open up a business. I know there’s business loans, but there’s certain amount of training to go through for that too that are non-accredited, non-academic.

Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr.: That’s interesting. There are lots of small business individuals out there and that’s the whole purpose of them going to school to be able to start a business, start something like that. So that’d be a very interesting change there. So I appreciate that lesson. So if there are advocates, anyone in a position to possibly make some of those changes happen, please do take that list and take it for action. Same for the students. Now you know some of the things to ask for. As you said we keep our head down, but if someone were to ask, “What could we possibly look for in changes?” John just gave us those.

But now, let’s focus on those that already you’re working with them. Those students are trying to utilize their benefits with American Military University. Just what are some of the top things that you frequently have to answer, or some of the most common questions that they have?

John Aldrich: I’ve at the university 15 years, it’s been a long time since I’ve worked directly with students, I have a team of individuals and they’re great professionals. Putting myself in the servicemember’s shoes, AMU is the largest provider of education in the Department of Defense. We have a lot of students that come to school with us, and we really do try to provide, whether it’s our enrollment management team, our outreach members in the field, we really do try to provide that Chick-fil-A-type service. Our ability to provide that service is one of the reasons we have so many services and we have great quality programs.

Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr.: That’s great. I continually hear that everyone is excited about their program that they’re in. As I was retiring, I was surprised to see a few of the materials out on the desk, and individuals I had worked with actually for a couple of years, my last few years, that they were completing their degree. I didn’t know that they were attending and they didn’t know that I was teaching.

John Aldrich: I love graduation. I never felt that way. I’ve worked at other universities. I worked at the University of Rhode Island, and I worked for a couple of community colleges. But graduation for us is probably the most exciting time. Not now because I’ve been out of the field for quite some time, but when I had just gotten out of the field, let’s say for the four years, three years afterwards, I was still getting students that would introduce themselves at graduation and say, “Mr. Aldrich, I met you at Schofield Barracks Education Center. Thanks for helping me get started.” So for me, that was all. And that just didn’t happen once or twice. That happened often. It doesn’t happen anymore. If they come to me now after 15 years, they’ve been at it a long time, I applaud their efforts.

Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr.: For you to see that in individuals, that’s your legacy. And I appreciate it and applaud you because I’m quite sure I was one of those persons as well and needed someone like you to talk to me about my educational options. So, John, this has been a great conversation. Anything else you’d like to add?

John Aldrich: No. I really appreciate you having me onboard. It’s been nice speaking with you. Thanks for the opportunity.

Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr.: Again, thank you so much for sharing your expertise today for this episode. And to our listeners, thank you for joining us. Be well and stay safe.

Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr., currently serves as the Department Chair of Transportation and Logistics Management and Supply Chain Management with the School of Business. He serves as an adjunct faculty for various universities around the world.

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