One of the perks of serving in the military is being able to go to college on the Defense Department’s dime.

But the number of service members taking advantage of this education benefit — often hailed as a key military recruitment and retention tool — has been declining in recent years, with all branches seeing drops in fiscal 2017, federal data show.

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Despite the decreases, some schools are encouraged by rule changes that could allow more service members to participate in tuition assistance.

TA Trends

Although the number of TA users has dropped, service members are largely continuing to use the benefit at the same schools.

A Military Times analysis of federal data shows no movement among the 10 most popular college destinations, with American Public Education Inc., which is the parent company of American Military University, and the University System of Maryland, which includes the University of Maryland University College, leading the way with 45,765 and 29,768 active-duty students, respectively.

Bridgepoint Education, which owns Ashford University, is next, followed by Central Texas College and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

The overall number of TA users dropped by more than 6 percent from fiscal 2016, to 473,715 students in fiscal 2017. Since fiscal 2014, the number of TA students has dropped by nearly 13 percent.

Over the last three years, the two service branches with the most TA users – the Army and the Air Force – have recorded a nearly 17-percent drop in TA usage. On the other hand, the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard, which have the fewest number of TA users, have seen TA usage rise since fiscal 2014.

DoD spokeswoman Maj. Carla Gleason said TA is a voluntary benefit, and a variety of factors can impact usage rates, including “force shaping, deployment cycles and the general economy.” She pointed to Education Department statistics, which also show a decline in overall enrollment in higher education and said this indicates, in part, that TA data “could be mirroring wider societal trends.”

Vincennes University, an Indiana public school, saw a 29 percent decrease in its TA enrollment between fiscal 2016 and fiscal 2017, the largest relative drop among the top 50 most popular college destinations for TA students. For-profit college systems DeVry University Inc. and the University of Phoenix also took hits in TA enrollment above 25 percent.

In the top five, American Public Education shed more than 3,000 students between fiscal 2016 and 2017, a 7-percent drop in its TA enrollment, while fellow for-profit system Bridgepoint shed more than 1,600 students, a 10-percent drop. Central Texas College, a public institution, enrolled about 1,900 fewer students in fiscal 2017, a 14 percent drop from the previous year.

Bridgepoint recently announced plans to spin off its two institutions, Ashford University and University of the Rockies, with the two schools merging and becoming a nonprofit private institution. Bridgepoint will continue as a for-profit online program management company being paid to serve the soon-to-be merged universities.

The move is similar in some respects to the acquisition of for-profit Kaplan University, the ninth most popular school for TA students, by Indiana public university Purdue. Purdue University Global will combine the two institutions’ resources. As with the Bridgepoint spin off, a for-profit entity remaining with Kaplan will provide administrative help to the nonprofit school, for a fee.

Ashford University has recently faced heat from veterans education groups and others after a years-long battle with the Veterans Affairs Department to maintain its eligibility for the GI Bill. In addition to that dispute, which is rooted in questions over Ashford’s state-level approval, Ashford is also facing a lawsuit from the California attorney general’s office, which accused the school of defrauding and deceiving students — claims a Bridgepoint spokesman “emphatically” denies and described as “demonstrably false.”

The spokesman, Nolan Sundrud, said while recent reports have created some confusion and likely contributed to Ashford’s drop in TA enrollment, the university has an “unwavering commitment” to provide military students with “affordable, accessible, high-quality educational opportunities.”

“This rests at the heart of Ashford University’s mission. We have created innovative learning models and support structures designed specifically around the unique needs of nontraditional students, and we are especially devoted to the academic success of active-duty military students, reservists, their families, and our student veterans,” he said.

John Aldrich, vice president for military outreach at American Public Education’s AMU, said DoD policies limiting institutions’ access to military installations are hurting his enrollment.

“The current base access policy affords an unfair advantage to schools which teach on-ground courses, ignoring the fact that over 85 percent of service members take their courses online,” he said. “Online schools need comparable access to their students to keep them enrolled and get them to graduation. We simply ask that all military students and their schools be treated equally.”

Earlier this year at a conference for military educators, a Pentagon official said DoD was rethinking its policy that schools must have more than 20 military-connected students on a base to be able to provide education counseling services on an installation. A new policy wouldn’t differentiate between schools with one student or 100 when deciding whether to allow them on a particular base. Instead, the decision would depend on what the installation commander could accommodate.

When asked for an update on the status of this policy, DoD did not respond by press time.

Changes underway

Recent changes relaxing TA rules for soldiers, sailors and Marines – but not airmen – could start to shift enrollment trends, though only time will tell.

On Aug. 5, the Army will end its current policy requiring soldiers to wait one year after initial military training before using TA. This will affect almost 95,000 soldiers, said Pamela Raymer, chief of the Army Continuing Education System, and she anticipates that at least 10 percent of them will start taking classes in this fall.

The new policy also eliminates a 10-year waiting period for soldiers between using TA for a bachelor’s degree and for a master’s. They will soon be allowed to go for the second degree in less than 10 years if they have completed advanced-level military training.

In fiscal 2017, 98,259 soldiers used the benefit, down from 107,278 the year before.

“The Army supports education, and the time seemed right to lift the waits to support soldiers’ ability to get started earlier on their higher education degree plans,” Raymer said. “The Army recognizes the value that a college degree provides soldiers — higher levels of problem solving and decision making to be better soldiers while serving and to prepare them for return to civilian life.”

The Marine Corps, too, has walked back its time-in-service requirement, from 24 to 18 months for Marines who “demonstrate significant extraordinary effort beyond the fulfillment of all assignments and normal expectations” at an O-5 level commander’s discretion, according to the latest policy released in May.

More sailors will be able to take advantage of TA as well, with recent changes to the Navy’s rules that went into effect June 1. Among these was the removal of the Navy’s annual TA cap of 16 semester hours or 24 quarter hours. Now, sailors can access TA up to the DoD’s $4,500 yearly limit.

The Navy has also instituted an automated approval process for TA requests and is allowing sailors to use TA for certificates.

“All of the changes were instituted to provide sailors greater access to voluntary education programs,” said Lt. Commander Katherine Meadows, spokeswoman for Navy Education and Training Command. “These changes have also come with feedback from sailors (about) what would make the voluntary education experience better.”

About 42,500 sailors used the benefit in fiscal 2017, compared to just over 46,000 in 2016. Meadows said based on TA records so far in 2018, the Navy expects more sailors will use the benefit this fiscal year than in 2017.

Last year, Military Times reported on a discrepancy between DoD’s records and the Navy’s statistics on the number of Navy TA users. DoD and the Navy have since agreed on the number of sailors using TA, but their data on TA classes and costs remain at odds.

The Air Force does not plan on making any changes for the next fiscal year, according to Senior Master Sgt. Harry Kibbe, an Air Force spokesman.

At Southern New Hampshire University, a school that jumped from the 20th most popular college for TA users in fiscal 2016 to No. 13 last year, service members have always been encouraged to finish their required professional military training before enrolling in any college program, said Randy Plunkett, assistance vice president of military initiatives. But he believes the recent changes to Army, Navy and Marine TA rules demonstrate the military’s commitment to supporting service members in higher education.

The school currently has sailors enrolled who will benefit from the Navy’s decision to lift its cap on TA credits, and Plunkett said it’s “excellent news” that they won’t have to wait until next fiscal year to continue their education.

“SNHU applauds these changes and are excited for service members to pursue degrees, certifications, or preparatory programs for transition to civilian life via the tuition assistance program,” he told Military Times.

“I think all of the changes to the TA usage rules are all positive,” said Kelly Wilmeth, vice president of stateside military operations at University of Maryland University College. “They can’t do anything but benefit the service members for those who are really actively motivated to use tuition assistance to work on their education.”