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DoD to improve voluntary education safeguards

By Lisa Daniel | American Forces Press Service | Aug. 15, 2012

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas — The Defense Department is nearing completion of an agreement with post-secondary schools to ensure service members have the best possible experience in continuing their education, a senior Pentagon official said.

Later this summer, the department will release a memorandum of understanding to be signed by colleges, universities and technical schools to make costs, schedules and other particulars transparent to service members, Charles Milam, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family programs, said.

Milam made the comments at the Department of Defense Worldwide Education Symposium in Las Vegas, which is held every three years to improve and expand voluntary education for service members and their spouses.

An online draft of the new instruction says all schools providing high school completion and post-secondary education through the DoD Tuition Assistance Program must agree to the multi-agency memorandum of understanding and have a signed copy on file with the DoD prior to service members receiving approval of tuition assistance. Each service determines eligibility for tuition assistance, which is capped at $250 per credit hour, or $4,500 per year, DoD officials said.

The DoD developed the memo with the departments of Education, Veterans Affairs and Justice as well as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as part of an executive order, President Barack Obama announced at Fort Stewart, Ga., in April to ensure service members, veterans and their families can get the information they need about the schools where they spend their education benefits.

The executive order "will make it easier for military members and veterans to make informed decisions about financial aid and paying for college," Milam said, and "it takes a number of steps to protect our personnel."

"The memorandum is meant to ensure service members have the widest variety of choices for their continued education," he added. "It puts important educational protections for service members and government oversight into writing."

Air Force Master Sgt. Brian Nelson, supervisor of academics at the Community College of the Air Force who attended the symposium, said continuing education is one of the most important benefits to Airmen. "I think education is at the forefront, as far as voluntary things they can do to go to school and get certifications."

He said 23 percent of Airmen have at least an associate's degree and the Air Force would like to see every Airman have at least that level of education before they transition out.

Army National Guard Chaplain (Capt.) Chris Melvin earned his associate's degree from the Community College of the Air Force before separating from active service. He later joined the Army National Guard, mostly to continue his education.

"It was my military education benefit that drew me back in that role," he said. "I paid very little out of my own pocket for my education."

Today, Melvin is an education services officer for the Army Nation Guard in Arizona where he oversees guardsmens' educational benefits, coordinates tuition assistance and provides counseling.

"I used every possible avenue I could" to continue education in the military, he said.

The Las Vegas symposium shows the department's commitment to higher education for service members, Milam said, and builds relationships between the military and educational institutions.

"We've set ambitious goals for this symposium, and hope to use this time to develop ideas that are imperative for delivering quality education programs and forming critical partnerships across multiple sectors," he said. "Together, we will explore strategies to effectively deliver voluntary education programs that complement a service member's capacity to serve while accomplishing their educational goals."

Milam referred to a pledge made by Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, who said when it comes to benefits such as continuing education, the department "will not break faith" with service members and their families even during tight economic times.

Service members enrolled in more than 860,000 graduate and undergraduate courses in fiscal year 2011, Milam said, and most of those were online.

"Our military community will not always have the 'normal' college experience of living on campus and attending classes, but thanks to online courses and other distance learning methods, our service members have been able to pursue educational goals regardless of their location," he said.

"We are at a point of transition where we are resizing our military, where we face competing budget priorities, and where we are facing a new type of technical warfare," Milam said. "All will require a well-trained, well-educated force."