Exposing military benefit’s limitations

Posted Sept. 05, 2010, at 8:50 p.m.

In March, the Department of Defense took away a benefit many military spouses didn’t know they had: $6,000 of financial assistance toward an education “leading to employment in Portable Career Fields.” Military spouses everywhere cried foul. The familiar refrain was, “After all we’ve sacrificed for the military, they’re going to take away our assistance for an education?”

The good news is that on Oct. 25, the DoD will reinstate the program. The bad news is that it will have these new restrictions: Participants must be the spouse of an active duty (or reservists on active orders) service member in pay grades E-1-E-5, W-W2 or 01-02; funding is limited to $4,000, with a $2,000 fiscal year maximum; the program of study must be finished in three years; and, according to the DoD, “Funding is limited to only Associate’s degrees, certifications and licensure programs.”

Read that last part again: “Funding is limited to only Associate’s degrees, certifications and licensure programs.” We’ll come back to this later.

I’m pursuing my master’s degree in mass communication, thanks to a military spouse career advancement account (MyCaa). I should tell you, however, that I probably needed a Ph.D. to figure out the program’s bureaucracy and paperwork. I saw the folder that the bursar’s office at the University of Maine kept on my financial aid, and it was as thick as a metropolitan phone book. Luckily, I had the personal, patient and meticulous support of Mr. Dennis Casey, without whom I’d still be trying to log on to MyCaa’s website.

Yet, it’s hard to complain, because going back to school would not have been financially possible for me without MyCaa, despite the fact that my husband is in a pay grade higher than those eligible under the new restrictions. Once I complete my master’s, I’ll work on my Ph.D., a degree that will not be covered after October. (Remember, “Funding is limited to only Associate’s degrees, certifications and licensure programs.”)

To be fair, my Ph.D. would not be covered anyway because I’ve already hit the $6,000 cap under the old program rules. However, this new restriction really bothers me. Is the DoD threatened by wives with anything more than an associate degree, certification or licensure? I believe so.

First of all, pursuing a four-year degree usually requires staying in one location for longer than the military’s standard two-three years. One of the DoD’s greatest assets is spouses who smile and happily follow along. If these women set their sights on advanced degrees, their kind will be in short supply. Don’t think that the military isn’t aware.

Second, military wives with higher degrees might be in the market for a better-paying job than their service member husband. When faced with re-enlistment, couples often consider whose job can offer them a better standard of living. The military knows it cannot compete with the civilian salaries of employees with advanced degrees. Therefore, it’s in their interest to prevent spouses from attaining one. Likewise, military families are usually sent to parts of the country with notoriously depressed economies. A spouse with her master’s or Ph.D. might be able to offer her family a better standard of living elsewhere.

This role reversal isn’t as far-fetched as you might believe. In the July-August 2010 issue of Atlantic magazine, Hanna Rosin’s article “The End of Men” stated this: “Earlier this year, for the first time in American history, the balance of the workforce tipped toward women, who now hold a majority of the nation’s jobs … Women dominate today’s colleges and professional schools … The postindustrial economy is indifferent to men’s size and strength. The attributes that are most valuable today — social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus — are, at a minimum, not predominantly male.”

If “The End of Men” is correct, if women are destined to dominate the postindustrial work force, the DoD has a heck of a problem on its hands. And they know it.

Wives who don’t want to move. Families that can make a better living elsewhere. Women with degrees that lead to jobs (physicians, lawyers, professors, etc.) that aren’t necessarily or easily “portable.” These are vexing concerns for the DoD, ones that potentially could topple the traditional model of a military family.

Programs such as MyCaa, with its new restrictions, seem to be addressing this growing modern-day dilemma by placing what amounts to a glass ceiling on the aspirations of military spouses.

Shatter it, shall we?

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