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Military Students and the Government Shutdown

Nov 11, 2013 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Education.org Columnist | 0 Comments

No matter which side of the political divide you’re on, it is likely you agree that the government shutdown was bad for everybody. The shutdown ended in mid-October, but during the time it was in effect, numerous groups of people dependent on government benefits were at risk. One major group that could have experienced major benefits was students in the military.

Military students depend on tuition assistance and funding from multiple military education programs, including the Montgomery and Post-9/11 GI Bills. During the shutdown, military students did not lose school funding; however, according to the Veterans’ Field Guide to the Government Shutdown, funding for military needs was projected to last until the end of the month.

After that time, military tuition assistance programs would have stopped for students in the military—and they would have had to choose whether to pay the costs of their education on their own or leave their programs. The funding covers tuition, books, supplies, and housing for active-duty veterans, spouses, and their children—and over 600,000 people had their education in the balance while the administration worked out its issues.

During the shutdown, all the military service branches stopped taking and processing applications for tuition assistance and other student aid benefits. Some did not permit military members to start the application process. While the shutdown was in effect, several government organizations closed their doors—including the Navy College Virtual Education Center and the Veterans’ Benefits Administration Call Center, making it more difficult for students to get information about their tuition benefits.

Some organizations stood out, however, as heroes during this time. For instance, National University, a nonprofit college that delivers classes mainly online, pledged to cover tuition costs for active-duty military members in October and November. Military staff represent approximately 13% of the National University student base of over 30,000.

Northeastern University’s president, Joseph E. Aoun, also stood up for military students. He wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to bring back tuition assistance programs. Northeastern currently has more than 100 active-duty service members as students. At the same time, the college also announced it would subsidize tuition costs for its military students during the shutdown if their college tuition benefits were cut.

This time, it was a close call. However, there is no question that as politics in the United States become more divided, schools will have to develop stronger contingency plans in order to deal with possible gaps in funding if the federal government cannot solve its problems without suspending major programs. Some colleges have already begun to discuss planning for a more unpredictable stream of government assistance for military students in the future.

Military students are a vulnerable group to this kind of political maneuvering, as many service members struggle in transitioning from a military to a civilian career—and a degree can be a major factor in making a successful transition.

A great number of members of the military enter service in large part because of the education benefits, and depend on the federal government to help them earn traditional or online degrees when they finish their tour of duty. For many members of the military and their families, lack of government financial support will mean that they will have to incur great costs on their own—or forego their education plans altogether. This represents a serious breach in the promise our country makes to take care of its service members when they return.

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