Military Spouse Employment:
Participation in and Efforts to Promote the My Career Advancement Account Program
GAO-19-320R: Published: Apr 9, 2019. Publicly Released: Apr 9, 2019.
The Department of Defense’s My Career Advancement Account program helped about 21,000 military spouses in 2017, which is a more than 40% decline from 2011.
The program is intended to help servicemembers' spouses to start or maintain careers given the hardships of military life. It can provide up to $4,000 for tuition or training to eligible spouses.
DOD has promoted the program but we found some of its outreach materials pointed to an old, inactive website. Also, technical difficulties have made it hard for some to use the current website. DOD corrected its outreach materials in March 2019 and is taking steps to address website issues.
We received these messages when trying to connect to the current My Career Advancement Account website.
Two screen shots show warnings that the connection to the site is not private.
What GAO Found
The number of military spouses receiving tuition assistance through the My Career Advancement Account (MyCAA) program declined more than 40 percent in recent years, from about 38,000 spouses in fiscal year 2011 to about 21,000 in fiscal year 2017. MyCAA provides up to $4,000 in tuition assistance for certificates, licenses, or associate's degrees to eligible spouses of servicemembers in certain paygrades to help improve employment opportunities. Data from the Department of Defense (DOD) showed that of the approximately 302,000 spouses in eligible paygrades in fiscal year 2017, about 7 percent received assistance, compared to about 10 percent of eligible spouses in fiscal year 2011. DOD officials said various factors may have contributed to the decline. For example, external trends such as decreases in the number of active duty forces and improvements in the labor market may have contributed to decreased enrollment. In addition, some eligible spouses did not participate in MyCAA because of personal or family obligations, according to DOD estimates from a 2015 survey of military spouses. Further, DOD officials said a lack of awareness about the MyCAA program has contributed to declining participation, which is consistent with 2015 DOD survey estimates that of eligible spouses who did not use MyCAA, about half were unaware of the program's existence.
DOD officials said to increase awareness of the MyCAA program, they developed outreach materials such as content for DOD websites, webinars, e-newsletters, hard-copy mailers, and social media accounts. DOD also developed a formal communication strategy for outreach, which was still in its initial stages of implementation at the time of GAO's review. The strategy includes tailoring communications to spouses early in their careers and promoting awareness among employment readiness specialists at military installations. However, GAO found that until recently some outreach materials contained inaccurate website information. Specifically, DOD officials said they changed the MyCAA website address in July 2018, but as of early February 2019, the new address was not reflected in 10 MyCAA outreach materials that GAO reviewed, which still referred users to an inactive website address for enrolling in the program. During its review of GAO's draft report, DOD updated these materials to include corrected website information as of March 2019.
Separately, technical difficulties such as outages have limited website access, and, as a result, DOD officials said some spouses could not register for classes on time and MyCAA enrollment declined. The website may also be difficult to access from certain devices, such as mobile devices, which are used by about 30 percent of those who visit the website, according to DOD officials. For example, users may receive an error message that their connection may not be private. Users may need to follow instructions to install a special DOD security certificate to proceed. Representatives of an advocacy group said spouses would likely leave the site rather than take the additional steps needed to bypass the warning. As of January 2019, DOD officials told GAO they are working to address these technical issues.
Why GAO Did This Study
For many of the approximately 612,000 spouses of active duty servicemembers, the special conditions of military life may make it difficult to start or maintain a career. Military spouses may have to move frequently to keep their families together when servicemembers are relocated. The MyCAA program seeks to help eligible military spouses improve their employment opportunities with tuition assistance for education and training. The John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 includes a provision for GAO to review MyCAA participation and awareness of the program. This report examines (1) what is known about participation rates among military spouses eligible for the MyCAA program, and (2) how DOD promotes awareness of and participation in the program.
To determine what is known about participation rates, GAO reviewed annual DOD military family readiness reports for fiscal years 2011 through 2016, the years for which DOD reported MyCAA data. GAO also obtained DOD data on military personnel and on the MyCAA program for fiscal year 2017, the most recent available. To identify potential factors affecting participation, GAO reviewed data from DOD's 2015 Survey of Active Duty Spouses, the most recent survey available, and interviewed DOD officials. To identify DOD efforts to promote the program, GAO reviewed outreach materials, analyzed the MyCAA website as of February 2019 using a web-scraping program, and interviewed DOD officials. GAO assessed DOD's MyCAA website content against relevant standards for information quality of federal websites. GAO also interviewed representatives of three military family advocacy groups selected on the basis of relevant research they conducted, recommendations by other groups, or their involvement in DOD's Spouse Ambassador Network.
For more information, contact Chelsa Gurkin at (202) 512-7215 or firstname.lastname@example.org.