Maine student-soldiers warned they may lose tuition aid because of federal cuts

Posted March 14, 2013, at 10:08 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — The planned suspension of tuition aid for members of the military has sparked anxiety among student-soldiers, concern among higher education officials and sharp criticism from lawmakers.

On March 8, the U.S. Army announced it no longer would accept applications for its tuition assistance program as a result of the sequester — the across-the-board federal cuts that took effect March 1. The Air Force, Coast Guard and Marines also have suspended their tuition aid programs.

If sequestration pulls away the helping hand, hundreds of Maine students who signed on to serve their country may have to find new ways to fund their educations.

Sean Flynn, a 24-year-old specialist in the Maine Army National Guard, has served for the past five years and attended Husson University for four. He has one year of school left and is working toward a master’s degree in business administration and a bachelor’s degree in accounting.

“I am honestly worried,” Flynn said Thursday evening.

Without the financial incentives the military offered, Flynn said he probably wouldn’t have gone to college.

Flynn relies heavily on the the Army’s tuition assistance, taking out student loans for whatever remains. So far, he said he has accumulated about $30,000 in loans. Now he may have to add to that debt the $4,500 per year that the military previously covered.

“It’s going to be a financial hit,” Flynn said.

The Army released an information sheet about the program suspension after making its announcement.

“This suspension is necessary given the significant budget execution challenges caused by the combined effects of a possible year-long continuing resolution and sequestration,” the sheet stated. “The Army understands the impacts of this action and will re-evaluate should the budgetary situation improve.”

In Maine, Army National Guard servicemen and women will feel the brunt of the cut, according to Staff Sgt. Charlene Nelson, incentives manager for the Maine Army National Guard Education Office.

Nelson said Thursday that there are 185 Maine Army National Guard soldiers in Maine who received federal tuition aid for the fall 2012 and spring 2013 semesters. That assistance totaled more than $530,000.

Those students were notified late last week after the program suspension was announced.

Nelson said she is pursuing a master’s degree in adult education from the University of Phoenix and maxed out her tuition assistance this year, at $4,500, to help fund her education.

Now, like other student-soldiers in Maine, Nelson will need to start looking for alternatives so she can continue her studies.

Universities, colleges and military organizations throughout the state are working to collect information and help students find new opportunities to pay for school. Some will be able to use the G.I. Bill, while others will need to seek further help from grants, scholarships, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or a state-funded military tuition program, which has a limited money pool.

“This is an unfortunate impact for our soldiers, but the Army continues to value education,” Nelson said.

The tuition assistance programs have proved popular throughout the nation. According to Army records, 201,000 soldiers used the program in fiscal year 2012, with the federal government paying $373 million toward their educations.

Tuition aid programs play a significant role in attracting students to the military. They also help students pursue degrees who might otherwise never have been able to afford school, according to university officials who work with military students.

“If this isn’t coming back, maybe they don’t continue their studies, or maybe they take fewer credits,” said Carolyn Cutting, veteran services coordinator at the University of Southern Maine.

The 43 USM students who receive tuition assistance are on spring break, so Cutting said she hasn’t had much opportunity to speak with them about their concerns. Some have asked questions about alternatives. One student said he might have to drop his planned summer courses because of financial concerns, Cutting said.

About 400 USM students receive some sort of veterans benefits, but most use the G.I. Bill to fund part of their education. The situation is similar at the University of Maine in Orono, where about 30 of the 200 student-soldiers receive federal tuition assistance, according to Tony Llerena, coordinator of UMaine’s Office of Veterans Education and Transition Services.

“I know a lot of students who counted on that money,” Llerena said. “It’s going to be interesting to see what the university can do to help them … I’m guessing that some [students] might not be able to come back.”

Politicians across the nation and in Maine have questioned the cuts and called on the federal government to come up with other solutions.

Gov. Paul LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, said Thursday that Mainers who join the National Guard to serve their country deserve the benefit of financial assistance to advance their educations.

“Now they will be forced to find other means of financial aid,” Bennett said. “This shows that across-the-board cuts from Washington are hurting Mainers. There are smarter, bipartisan ways to cut spending and continue to grow our economy.”

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins on Thursday was critical of the fact that nearly half of the cuts stemming from sequestration were aimed at defense spending, which accounts for 20 percent of the federal budget.

“Reducing spending is essential, but Congress and the president must do so in a responsible, thoughtful manner,” Collins said. “Our nation’s brave and dedicated service members should not bear the burden. That’s why I have introduced a bipartisan amendment, with Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., that would help mitigate the harmful effects of the indiscriminate, meat-ax cuts by allowing federal agencies and departments to set priorities and implement cuts in a smarter way.”

Another bill, proposed Thursday by Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., aims to remove the programs from the sequester chopping block.

“We cannot put the burden of addressing our long-term fiscal challenges on the backs of our servicemembers,” Hagan said. “The tuition assistance program gives our best and brightest the opportunity to continue developing their skills while on active duty, which will ultimately lead to smoother transitions to civilian life.”

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