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Mar 9, 2013 12:46 AM by Tony Spehar - tspehar@koaa.com

Local military families criticize decision to end tuition assistance program

Fallout from the sequestration cuts started to hit local military families as the Army and Marine Corps announced the suspension of their tuition assistance program that offered financial help to service members attending college.

Over 200,000 soldiers used the Army's tuition assistance program in 2012, over 7000 of them received college degrees. Tuition assistance offers up to $4,500 a year in aid. Financial assistance for education is cited as big reason for many people to enlist and the program was designed to help service members advance in their careers in the Army or civilian life.

Learning the program had been cut was a shock for some local families.

"Rage, it's bizarre," said Courtney McNeill-Dilger, whose fiancee serves in the Army and is part of the tuition assistance program. "The military is a way to support your country, do something that you're proud of and go to college and have something that's transferable outside the military world in the civilian world."

Those who had enrolled in courses prior the shutdown will still be given assistance, but will not be allowed to enroll in new courses unless the program is reinstated. In 2012 the Army gave out $373-million in tuition assistance to allow active duty soldiers to attend classes at colleges. Many local schools could be impacted by the cut.

"It's really unfortunate for those individuals that are trying to improve their education," explained Phillip Morris, Director of Veteran and Military Student Affairs at University of Colorado Colorado Springs.

Morris, a veteran himself who participated in the tuition assistance program, estimated UCCS usually has around 70 active duty students enrolled each semester. Though the program's ending may affect them, he said there were still other options like financial aid and soldiers can still use VA benefits like the Montgomery GI bill for education.

"They can start using their VA education benefits while they're still on active duty," Morris explained. "I want them to know that we're here, we'll continue to work with them."

However, many soldiers use tuition assistance for their education and pass on GI Bill benefits to their spouses or children.

"I have a really good friend of mine who is less than a year away from their degree and because this is stopped they can't finish college," described Courtney McNeill-Dilger.

Army officials said in a statement on Friday that the tuition assistance program could be brought back if a deal is reached to end the sequester cuts.

Active duty soldiers with concerns are invited to call the UCCS Office of Veteran and Military Student Affairs at 719.255.3253. Updated information from the Army will be posted on www.goarmyed.com.

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