John Harrison was halfway to a bachelor’s degree but financially strapped when Marine recruiters began calling him in 2007.
His wife, Amanda Harrison, recalls their pitches: “Hey, there’s all these different ways to finish your degree and you don’t have to go into a lot of debt to do it.”
That was perhaps true until last week, when the Marines told Sgt. Harrison, 26, that his college tuition would no longer be paid.
“I was furious,” Amanda said. “So many of us cannot afford to pay out-of-pocket for our service members to go to school.”
The Army, Air Force and Coast Guard followed suit by also suspending tuition assistance to tens of thousands of active-duty troops. A Navy spokesman told Yahoo News on Wednesday that possible changes to its tuition program would be announced by the end of the week.
The plans reimburse service members $250 per semester hour, up to $4,500 a year, for off-duty college tuition.
The military immediately blamed $85 billion in sequestration spending cuts that went into effect March 1.
“Targeted cuts in benefits help preserve the essential programs that support the health, welfare, and mission readiness on our Marines and Sailors,” the Marines’ Shawn Conlon said in an email to Yahoo News.
“The Army understands the impact of this decision and will re-evaluate the decision if the budgetary situation improves,” callers to the Army’s education hotline now hear.
These are hollow words to Amanda, whose husband wants to be an intelligence analyst.
“I couldn’t sit by and let this happen,” said Amanda, 25.
She launched a petition on Change.org asking the U.S. Congress, military and other federal leaders to “Please honor your promise and restore funding to the military tuition assistance program.”
The movement has collected more than 10,000 signatures in a week, making it one of the site's fastest-growing campaigns. Strangers have contacted Amanda to express their support.
“My son is in the Marine Corps and his desire is to go to college and get a degree in criminal justice when he gets out,” Barbara Wing of Nebraska wrote on the petition site. “He is serving this country for less money than he could earn otherwise and honestly, this was one of the reasons that he enlisted, to have help with college.”
The Army, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard are encouraging service members not to be deterred. They have made counselors available to discuss other education programs and funding.
“No tuition assistance: no problem,” a news article published by the Marines, left Amanda annoyed.
“Budget cuts are going to hurt everybody, but to say it’s not a problem is trying to bury your head in the sand,” she said.
The article suggested financial aid and GI Bills, but Amanda said training schedules and deployments prevent many soldiers from maintaining required course loads to keep some loans deferred.
The education cuts come at a time when joblessness among veterans is at 9.4 percent, nearly 2 percentage points higher than the rest of the country.
Amanda fears this dilemma will worsen if her husband and his fellow service members can’t finish their degrees.
“This is the first time that a lot of these young men and woman have had the opportunity to go to college,” she said. “I can’t even describe how important this is.”