Skip Navigation

UMGC Global Media Center
Is Military Tuition Assistance Meeting Needs of Servicemembers?

Gil Klein
By Gil Klein

The Department of Defense Tuition Assistance Program is a lifeline for active-service military personnel and essential for maintaining enlistments. Yet the monetary value of the benefit has been unchanged since 2002 even as college tuition and fees have risen twice as fast as the consumer price index, undermining military members’ ability to pursue degrees while serving the country, University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) President Gregory Fowler told an audience at a recent Capitol Hill event.

Fowler made the remarks during a Feb. 6 briefing organized by The Presidents Forum and the American Legion and moderated by Inside Higher Ed’s federal policy reporter, Katherine Knott. Fowler was joined on the panel by Mark Milliron, president of National University, Anne Meehan, assistant vice president for government affairs at the American Council on Education, and Joe Sharpe, director of the American Legion’s National Veterans Education and Employment Office.

Tuition assistance “has been a true vehicle by which we can transform the lives of students, and they see it that way,” Fowler told the audience. UMGC was founded more than 75 years ago to serve the higher education needs of working adults and U.S. servicemembers around the world. Today more than 50% of its 90,000 enrollment is made up of military members, including veterans, and their families.

A UMGC analysis found that the cap on tuition assistance is forcing servicemembers to pay more for their education out of pocket, take out costly student loans or, if eligible, rely on post-9/11 GI Bill benefits while still on active duty to complete their degrees in a timely manner.

A tuition assistance cap of $250 per semester hour—or $4,500 maximum for a year—has not changed in the 21st century, the analysis found, “during which time the cost of providing the education has increased significantly, especially at the graduate level and in STEM-related programs of study.”

National University’s Milliron said that for those who might otherwise be unable to a college education, the tuition assistance benefit is one of the crucial elements in persuading recruits to join the military.

“Just to be blunt, I’ve heard people say it’s easier to get educated while working outside of the military,” he said, referring to private companies that offer tuition assistance to attract workers in a competitive labor market. “It used to be the opposite because the military used to be known for supporting people. If we don’t act, we’re going to see the spiral continue to go down.”

The cap on tuition assistance is only one complication faced by servicemembers. Each branch of the military also has its own eligibility requirements, said Joe Sharpe of the American Legion.

“In some cases, it may come down to the base commander saying, ‘Right now, this is what I’m prepared to approve,’” Sharpe said. “It’s a bit more of a challenging environment if we don’t have standardization.”

UMGC and National University have long histories of supporting active-service students, but other universities that want to participate are being held back by the tuition assistance restrictions, said Anne Meehan, assistant vice president for government affairs for the American Council on Education.

“I am hearing from colleges and universities who only had a handful of active-duty members, but they still care,” she said. “We want to make sure that servicemembers have the ability to choose the school that is the right fit for them.”

Fowler said he spoke recently to UMGC military students in Naples, Italy, who were about to be deployed. “They still want to talk about how they are going to be able to complete their education,” he said. “If we can make more of it [tuition assistance] available, they’re going to continue to be able to take advantage of it.”