Editor's note: After this story was published online, Navy officials disputed the Navy TA usage figures provided by the Defense Department. The Navy and the Defense Department have yet to agree on TA usage numbers.

The number of service members using military tuition assistance dropped again in fiscal year 2016, continuing a years-long downward trend, while Post-9/11 GI Bill usage saw a slight decrease, the first since the benefit took effect in 2009, federal data indicate.

The same schools that have historically attracted the most users of those education benefits kept their places at the top in fiscal 2016. But the University of Phoenix, the top GI Bill school, and American Military University, the top TA school, are each shedding thousands of students, as some of their competitors slowly gain ground.

Phoenix's losses come at a time of intense scrutiny for the controversial for-profit school. John Aldrich, a vice president at AMU, also a for-profit school, said recent TA rules and limitations are responsible for the TA enrollment drops, a view that others echoed.

The Department of Defense "should indeed be very concerned about the continued trend of fewer TA students," Aldrich said. "DoD recruits men and women into military service in part because of education benefits. Failure to maintain or expand these benefits can predictably hurt recruitment, retention, promotion and readiness in the military."

The numbers:

Drops in TA

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Between fiscal 2015 and 2016, the total number of TA students fell by 4.7 percent, as all service branches but the Coast Guard saw a drop in users. The Navy saw the steepest decline, followed by the Air Force, Marine Corps and Army.

Since 2013, the total number of TA users has declined more than 22 percent. Some of the top TA schools attribute the decline in their numbers to major changes to the DoD’s Voluntary Education Program in 2014, which included limiting institutions’ access to military installations.

"All the rules on TA use have certainly become stricter, and that’s certainly limited the TA use," said Tina Ady, deputy chancellor for Central Texas College, the fourth most popular destination for TA users, with a main campus located just outside Fort Hood.

There was also sequestration in 2013, during which TA funds stopped for 30 days, said Kelly Wilmeth, a vice president at University of Maryland University College, which accounts for the vast majority of military students at the University System of Maryland, the second most popular destination for TA users.

The DoD did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

AMU’s TA population dropped by nearly 2,700 students from fiscal 2015 to fiscal 2016. This follows a 3,900-student decline from fiscal 2014 to fiscal 2015. Meanwhile, enrollment figures held steady at UMUC, where officials say they are ramping up offerings to make the institution more attractive to military and veteran students. This includes eliminating textbooks for all students to make courses more affordable, adding online degree programs, creating a veteran-focused unit of staff members and expanding onto more military installations.

"It costs us money in time and people and resources, but we want to give back to the education centers because they really are the entry point for a lot of these military students who are coming to school and asking questions about college," Wilmeth said.

At Central Texas College, the TA student population dropped by nearly 950 in fiscal 2016, a development that Ady said the school is monitoring.

"What we try to do is be as flexible as possible to develop new programs and develop new initiatives to hopefully turn this trend around."

GI Bill trends

Following years of user counts increasing by tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of students annually, Post-9/11 GI Bill usage has plateaued.

After hitting 790,408 students in fiscal 2014, benefit usage increased by about 100 students in 2015 and dropped by about 400 students in 2016, according to VA data.

James Ruhlman, an acting deputy director for the Department of Veterans Affairs, chalked it up to fewer service members separating from the military and a decreasing veteran unemployment rate. Another major factor: In the early years of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, its usage increased dramatically each year, as students discovered the new benefit and chose it over the Montgomery GI Bill. By now, the Post-9/11 GI Bill is widely known, and almost everyone who wants to make the switch already has.

Most Post-9/11 GI Bill users are going to degree-granting schools, with the majority attending public institutions, Ruhlman said.

"If anything we’ve probably seen a little bit of a dip in some of the other ways to use benefits, like vocational flight training for people who want to become professional pilots or on-the-job training like apprenticeship, because of the fact that we do have a benefit now that pays tuition and fees, books and supplies, and a monthly housing allowance," he added.

A marine reading college pamphlets at the Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune Education Center.

Photo Credit: Lance Cpl. Donovan Lee, Marine Corps

AMU’s Aldrich said veterans can use their education benefits more freely than service members can use TA. As AMU has seen declines in its TA population in recent years, its Post-9/11 GI Bill population is growing.

"There are a number of factors affecting TA enrollments – Naval base closures, confusing enrollment management tools, limited installation access, and force reductions," Aldrich said. "Veterans are not subject to the same limitations and restrictions regarding their preferred school of choice."

The California Community College System, the second most popular destination for GI Bill users, credits its place on the list to the inexpensive tuition rates and easy admissions rules at its 113 colleges. Director of State Government Relations Michael Magee said much of their popularity among veterans stems from word of mouth, as students feel welcome and veteran resource centers gain momentum across the state.

To track Post-9/11 GI Bill use, Military Times evaluated VA data showing how many people used the GI Bill in fiscal 2016 and the resulting cost, as well as annual summary data. Yellow Ribbon program use was not included. Military Times combined this data with Education Department information to group institutions that are part of the same university system.

To track tuition assistance use, information including student enrollment, course counts and cost was collected from the Defense Department, covering the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. The Coast Guard provided similar information, and affiliated institutions were grouped together just as they were for the GI Bill analysis.

For-profit representation

For-profit institutions, which operate as businesses, continue to be popular destinations for military-connected students. Half of the top 10 schools that attracted the most GI Bill users were for-profits, as were four of the top 10 for TA users.

The embattled University of Phoenix educated 35,388 GI Bill students in fiscal 2016, nearly double that of the California Community College System, the second most popular veteran destination. But that’s down from nearly 50,000 GI Bill students in fiscal 2014, just two years prior.

The school has come under intense scrutiny in recent years and was briefly placed on probation and barred from enrolling new TA students by the DoD in late 2015. That likely accounts for a substantial part of the nearly 42 percent decline in the school’s TA students in fiscal 2016, which included the period of probation.

According to a statement from the university, nearly 10,000 GI Bill and TA students completed their education at University of Phoenix in fiscal 2016.

"We view their trust in our career-relevant programs not just as a privilege but as a responsibility. Under our new leadership, the University is looking forward to enhancing and accelerating efforts underway to ensure more military students pursue and complete their higher education goals," the statement said.

The VA said in a statement that veteran students should be able to use their earned Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits at the institution that best meets their needs, "regardless of whether the school is nonprofit, for-profit, or a state institution."

"It is important to protect veterans and ensure that they are armed with information to make the right choice and prevent any institution from taking advantage of them solely for their GI Bill benefits — without providing a quality education in return. Veterans should not be aggressively recruited by institutions principally because of financial motives," the statement continued. "The department understands the demand, especially among veterans, for non-traditional forms of education. But we also believe that we must do all we can to ensure veterans are well-informed and not taken advantage of by institutions that are not acting in their best interest."

For their part, the California Community College System feels public schools "tend to be more reliable in terms of sticking around," Magee said, giving the example of the sudden folding of ITT Tech – the seventh most popular GI Bill destination in fiscal 2015. "I don't think a student would all of a sudden want to be nowhere."

While the Obama administration cracked down on the for-profit sector, Aldrich said the new administration doesn’t appear to discriminate against for-profit and online schools.

"They appear to be treating all students and institutions equally," he said. "They have stated their understanding of the greater need for online education given adult learners’ having jobs and families that don’t allow them time to sit in a classroom.