BARSTOW • Fort Irwin combat engineer Justin King has been taking community college courses on base through Barstow Community College, and he hoped to enroll in more classes next school year.
That may not happen, thanks to recent funding cuts.
Army and Marine Corps tuition assistance programs are being suspended due to budget shortfalls, according to a U.S. Department of Defense news release. The suspension took effect Friday, but soldiers and Marines currently enrolled in courses will be allowed to complete them.
"That's the whole reason why people join the military, is to get their education," King said. "It's going to be kind of hard when we don't get paid as much as it is, and the Army is cutting back our pay."
Tuition assistance is a popular program, with 201,000 Army soldiers enrolled in 2012, according to the website GoArmyEd.com. The program provides financial assistance for voluntary off-duty education programs in support of a soldier's professional and personal self-development goals.
King funded his schooling with student loans before enlisting in the Army, and he said he had just paid them off.
"I have two new soldiers that are 18 and this is their first duty station," he said. "They're wanting to enroll in college and they tell me all the time that's why they joined was to get an education. And if there isn't a program for them to do that, then they're not going to be happy."
Fort Irwin Garrison Commander Col. Kurt Pinkerton said in a statement that they were still assessing how the announcement could impact soldiers at the base.
"This will not impact those soldiers already enrolled in courses with approved TA," Pinkerton said. "We are currently assessing if it will impact any soldiers at Fort Irwin enrolled in future courses."
Lt. Col. Tom Alexander, spokesman for the Army's personnel chief, said the suspension is necessary due to budget challenges from the combined effects of a possible year-long continuing resolution and sequestration, according to an Army Times article.
"The Army understands the effects of this action and will re-evaluate should the budget situation improve," Alexander said in the article.
In 2012 the Army spent $373 million on tuition assistance payments for soldiers enrolled in 620,000 courses. With that money, 2,831 soldiers earned associate's degrees, 4,495 earned bachelor's and 1,946 received graduate degrees. The program paid 100 percent of tuition per soldier up to $4,500 a year.
"Soldiers have other options other than tuition assistance," said Spc. James Hardesty of Fort Irwin. "I just hope that tuition assistance doesn't stop people from continuing their education because the VA offers a lot of assistance. ... Soldiers need to go to the education center and see what they have to offer."
Soldiers can continue to pursue their educational goals with VA education benefits, if applicable, that include the Montgomery GI Bill-Active Duty, (Chapter 30), Montgomery GI Bill-Selected Reserve (Chapter 1606), Reserve Education Assistance Program (Chapter 1607), the Post 9/11 GI Bill, federal grants and federal financial aid, according to the GoArmyEd website. National Guard Soldiers may also be eligible for state tuition assistance benefits.