WASHINGTON — 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 today.
The department will release later this summer a memorandum of understanding to be signed by colleges, universities and technical schools to make costs, schedules and other particulars transparent to service members, said Charles E. Milam, the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family programs.
He made the comments at the Department of Defense Worldwide Education Symposium in Las Vegas, 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 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.
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 that service members, veterans and their families can get the information they need about the schools where they spend their education benefits.
The executive order â€œwill make it easier for military members and veterans to make informed decisions about financial aid and paying for college,â€ Milam said, and â€œit takes a number of steps to protect our personnel.â€
â€œThe memorandum is meant to ensure service members have the widest variety of choices for their continued education,â€ he added. â€œIt puts important educational protections for service members and government oversight into writing.â€
Air Force Master Sgt. Brian Nelson, a 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. â€œI think education is at the forefront, as far as voluntary things they can do to go to school and get certifications.â€ He said 23 percent of Airmen have at least an associateâ€™s degree and the Air Force would like to see every Airmen have at least that level of education before they transition out.
Army National Guard Chaplain (Capt.) Chris Melvin earned his associateâ€™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. â€œIt was my military education benefit that drew me back in that role,â€ he said. â€œI paid very little out of my own pocket for my education.â€
Today, Melvin is an education services officer for the Army Nation Guard in Arizona where he oversees guardsmensâ€™ educational benefits, coordinates tuition assistance and provides counseling. He earned his masterâ€™s in divinity studies and now is considering a Ph.D.
â€œI used every possible avenue I couldâ€ to continue education in the military, he said.
The Las Vegas symposium shows the departmentâ€™s commitment to higher education for service members, Milam said, and is important for building relationships between the military and educational institutions.
â€œWeâ€™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,â€ he said. â€œTogether, we will explore strategies to effectively deliver voluntary education programs that complement a service memberâ€™s capacity to serve while accomplishing their educational goals.â€
Milam referred to a pledge made by Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, who has said that when it comes to benefits such as continuing education, the department â€œwill not break faithâ€ 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 2011, Milam said, and most of those were online.
â€œOur military community will not always have the â€˜normalâ€™ 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,â€ he said.
As the military draws down in Afghanistan, the department is embarking on a new chapter after 10 years of war. â€œWe 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.â€ All will require a well-trained, well-educated force, Milam added.