Columbia College Supports Military Students Amid Sequestration Cuts

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COLUMBIA - Columbia College announced its plan Tuesday to help military students deal with the suspension of the tuition assistance program.

Columbia College said it will defer charges for the academic term that starts March 25 while military students seek other funding options. For those students unable to secure other financial assistance, the college will offer a no-liability withdrawal policy or an extended six-month payment plan. The cuts to the program are the result of the $85 billion in automatic federal spending cuts that went into effect March 1.

Also on Tuesday the Air Force announced it will suspend its tuition assistance programs. It joins the Army, Marine Corps and Coast Guard,all who suspended their assistance programs last week. A decision by the Navy is pending. 

Columbia College has many military members enrolled at its 35 campuses, including 18 sites on military bases. In 2011, more than 8,500 military students received tuition assistance for Columbia College coursework. In a March 12 news release administrators expressed their support for military students. 

"This is an opportunity to show our military students how much we value their service to our country as we support the goal of higher education for all," said Mike Lederle, assistant dean for military and federal programs. "Columbia College has been a leader in military education since 1973, and we will continue to serve our service member students and assist them during this period of transition."

Students at Columbia College participate in ROTC through a cooperative program with MU. MU has yet to release a similar tuition deferral plan, but officials said the tuition cuts fall in line with other military cuts happening as a result of the sequestration. 

"To everybody right now it seems like it's a slap in the face to them but it's not any different from some of the other cuts happening military wide right now too that we're all dealing with," said Commander Mick Bastian, Executive Officer of MU Naval ROTC Unit. "Tuition assistance is just one of those things that is more directly related to the people. It hits a little more personal and in our homes so we get more emotionally involved in it."

Commander Bastian said previously active duty veterans on tuition assistance now will not be effected because they're grandfathered in, however people coming into the military will not be able to sign up for the tuition assistance program. The changes are expected to leave many military personnel looking for ways to pay for classes for the summer and fall semesters. Bastian said he expects the Department of Defense to reverse the cuts once the sequestration is over. 

"What veterans are just going to have to do is find other ways to pay for their school. Now will it cause some people to drop out of school right now? It might," Bastain said. "It might cause a couple people to delay a semester or two because that was their primary means to pay for it, but they're just going to have to do what other people do to find a way to pay for it."

The G.I. Bill has not been affected so far and service members might still qualify for aid under it. 

U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-North Carolina and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, released a letter Tuesday urging Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to find another place to cut.

"I believe that denying educational opportunities to our service members is the wrong way to find savings, and I fear this decision will inhibit the Air Force, Army and Marine Corps from developing the highly skilled forces they need to succeed in this current environment," Hagan said. "Completely suspending this program, rather than simply reducing its funding by an amount proportionate to the cuts mandated by sequestration, is an alarming decision."

Hagel did not respond Tuesday night. 

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