A candidate helps carry a simulated patient during Special Forces Assessment and Selection at Camp Mackall, North Carolina January 18, 2024. Army photo by K. Kassens.

Special operators are asking the Army not to cut benefits that help soldiers pay for secondary education and vocational training for civilian jobs post-military service.

David Cook, director of the Special Operations Association of America said that an Army proposal to cut civilian tuition and certification assistance could mean special operators like Green Berets and Rangers would lose a key path for promotions, leading to lower retention rates. 

“The nature of special operations is that you have to volunteer to get selected, you have to go through the most rigorous training in the world and you go in every day with people that are better than you,” Cook, a former psychological operations soldier, told Task & Purpose. “Along with the fact that the Army evaluations have included secondary education to be promoted for senior enlisted ranks – then special operations promotion rates are higher than the conventional Army – which means that tuition assistance is a vital incentive for special operators to take advantage of.”

The group’s letter comes amid reports that the Army is considering cuts to two major assistance programs. The cuts, first reported by Military.com, come as the services and Congress are working through funding for the fiscal year 2025 budget.

“This is a vital tool not only to draw in recruits, but to retain them as well. With more focus on formal education for enlisted Service Members needed for promotion and career progression, tuition assistance is a fundamental incentive,” Cook wrote in a letter to Army Secretary Christine Wormuth. 

Of the two programs on the chopping block, the larger and more widely used is the Tuition Assistance Program which pays up to  $4,000 per year or $250 per semester hour for civilian classes. The program pays for up to 130 semester hours of undergraduate credit — enough for a for year degree at most colleges — and 39 semester hours of graduate credits.

The service is also reportedly reviewing the Army Credentialing Assistance Program, introduced in 2020, which gives soldiers $4,000 to pursue courses and exams for civilian industry-recognized credentials in various occupations. Aviation-related credentials for active duty soldiers are limited to $1,000 in Army funds. Soldiers can take courses to enhance skills for their current MOS or for a civilian job they plan to pursue after military service, according to the Department of Defense. 

According to the Army National Guard, the most popular certifications are information technology and project management.

“The world is built by tradesman, everything that we do requires trade,” said Lt. Col. Jeff Drawe, an Idaho National Guardsmen who took advantage of the program in 2020 to do a 30-hour welding course that lasted five Saturdays and cost $595. “Regardless of your employment situation, if you’re ever laid off you’ll always be able to find employment.”

A candidate helps carry a simulated patient during Special Forces Assessment and Selection at Camp Mackall, North Carolina January 18, 2024. Army photo by K. Kassens.
Idaho Army National Guard Lt. Col. Jeff Drawe’s desire to continue learning led him to completing an introductory welding course at the College of Western Idaho in December. The course consisted of 30 hours of instruction over five Saturdays. Drawe used the Idaho National Guard’s State Education Assistance Program to pay the course’s $595 tuition. (U.S. National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Becky Vanshur)

‘A small investment’

In his letter, Cook also said the programs are a “small investment” into the Army’s “Taking Care of People” priority listed in its 2025 budget request overview.

In an interview with Task & Purpose, Cook compared the value of the tuition assistance program to the GI bill for soldiers and the American economy after WWII. 

“There’s a whole host of reasons why the United States went into an economic windfall after WWII but the GI Bill was one because it gave servicemembers an entitlement to go out and get a formal education,” he said. “The tuition assistance program is not comparable to the GI Bill post-WWII but the fact that it gives soldiers an incentive, an avenue or a pathway to gain formal education while you’re serving is something that means a lot, especially to noncommissioned officers.”

Cook also noted that many retired soldiers, especially Special Forces, try to find jobs in the private defense world after service with jobs that almost always require a bachelor’s degree at minimum. But degrees can also impact soldiers who pursue full Army careers, he said. 

“When we look at two promotion packets for senior enlisted folks and one’s got a bachelor’s degree and the other one doesn’t, then you’re gonna take the one with formal education – among other things, of course,” he said, “but the Army gives that to everyone so the tuition assistance program and formal college education is something that sets you apart and those evaluations.”

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In 2023, more than 100,000 soldiers used the tuition assistance program which

cost the Army around $278 million, Cook said in his letter. Of the $185.9 billion proposed Army budget for 2025, the $278 million tuition assistance cost represents only 0.15% of the entire plan, he added.

At a Congressional hearing on the Army’s fiscal year 2025 budget, federal lawmakers questioned the cuts impact on recruiting – a major issue plaguing the service over the last few years. In Fiscal Year 2022, the Army recruited 45,000 new soldiers, missing a goal of 60,000 recruits by 25%. Last fiscal year, the Army fell 10,000 recruits short of its goal of 65,000, a 15% miss.

Wormuth told lawmakers that the Army had not made any decisions on cuts to two financial assistance programs. 

“It’s a great program. We support it. We know our soldiers value certifications that they can then use when they leave the Army. The challenge we have is we didn’t frankly really put any guardrails around the program to help us scope it,” Wormuth said.

The Army is now looking to put limits on the program to curb growing costs across the service, she said.

“Rather than having soldiers be able to pursue an unlimited number of credentials every year in perpetuity, we may look at saying that soldiers could do one certification a year. Maybe have sort of a cap on the number of certifications they can get over the duration of their time in the Army — really just to try to manage the costs of the program a little bit better,” she said. “Those kinds of guardrails are very similar to what our sister services have done in the Air Force and the Navy.”

The Army as a ‘path forward’

Cook said the assistance programs for further education or vocational certifications are part of the attraction for young enlisted troops who join the Army for a “million different reasons” other than just wanting to serve their country.

“One of them is that some people don’t have a clear pathway forward, or a way to pay for it,” Cook said. “That pathway is very valuable to an entire population of young people who can’t take student loans out or don’t have the means to go to college the traditional way.”

Cook admits he was “not the best student” when he started college. But after joining the Army at 25, Cook said he matured, learned structure and then became a “double offender” finishing his master’s degree too. In his letter, Cook noted the “staggering” financial burden of a secondary education on an NCO salary.

“It would be extremely difficult for me to go to school full time with two toddlers and a stay-at-home mom,” he said. “The fact that I knocked out two degrees on active duty could not have been done without the tuition assistance program on an enlisted salary.”

NCO salaries range from Privates with less than two years of experience making around $24,000 annually to Staff Sergeants with eight years of experience making just over $51,000.

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