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DOD Education Benefits: Data on Officer Participation in and Views on Proposed Changes to the Tuition Assistance Program

GAO-19-699R Published: Sep 16, 2019. Publicly Released: Sep 16, 2019.
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Fast Facts

In fiscal year 2018, DOD provided tuition assistance for about 200,000 servicemembers who enrolled in over 600,000 courses. The cost was about $425 million. About 7% of this assistance benefited active-duty officers.

When active-duty officers use this benefit, they increase the length of time they must remain in military service. Congress may change the policy so that this committed time is served consecutively—not concurrently.

A number of the education counselors and officers told us such a change could reduce use of this benefit and hurt retention efforts. This report also discusses service length for officers who used tuition assistance.

Books, diploma, mortarboard

Books, diploma, mortarboard

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What GAO Found

In fiscal year 2018, the Department of Defense (DOD) provided tuition assistance (benefits for off-duty voluntary education) to about 15,000 active-duty commissioned officers at a cost of almost $31 million. In the same fiscal year, DOD provided tuition assistance funding toward about 200,000 active-duty officers' and enlisted servicemembers' enrollment in over 600,000 courses at a program cost of around $425 million. As a result, active-duty commissioned officers comprised about 7 percent of tuition assistance participants, courses taken, and program costs in fiscal year 2018.

The length of active-duty officers' commissioned service, including the periods of service prior to and after using tuition assistance benefits, varied by military service for the years included in GAO's review. In addition, of officers who last used tuition assistance in fiscal year 2009, the percentage who remained in commissioned service as of May 2019 ranged from 26 percent to 67 percent across the services. Among active-duty officers who have separated after last using tuition assistance in 2009, the median length of their total length of commissioned service ranged from 11.00 years to 13.75 years.

Service officials, education counselors, and active-duty commissioned officers who GAO interviewed stated that there are numerous potential effects of a proposed policy change to a consecutive 2-year service obligation (a commitment to remain in military service for a specific length of time) for accepting tuition assistance. Currently, active-duty commissioned officers incur a 2-year service obligation and may serve this commitment concurrently with any other service obligation. The officials, counselors, and officers who GAO interviewed stated that the potential effects include a decrease in officers' usage of tuition assistance, negative effect on retention, increased reliance by officers on other sources of tuition funding, and increased administrative costs. They also stated that they were uncertain about whether officers would incur a consecutive 2-year service obligation per each class under the proposed policy change.

Why GAO Did This Study

DOD provides servicemembers a tuition assistance benefit that provides benefits for off-duty voluntary education while a servicemember remains in the service. DOD views the tuition assistance program as critically important to servicemembers' professional and personal growth within the military and to the facilitation of their later assimilation into the civilian workforce. Conference Report 115-874, which accompanied the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019, included a provision for GAO to conduct a review of retention data associated with officers who accept tuition assistance payments.

This report describes (1) active-duty commissioned officers' participation in the tuition assistance program; (2) the number of years of commissioned service that active-duty officers have when first accepting tuition assistance, and the number of additional years these officers serve after receipt of final tuition assistance payments; and (3) views of service officials, military service education counselors, and active-duty officers regarding the potential effects of requiring service obligations for accepting tuition assistance to be served consecutively with any other service obligation. To address these questions, GAO obtained and analyzed service-level tuition assistance data related to number of participants, courses, and program costs as well as personnel data on length of officers' active-duty service prior to and after completion of the education associated with tuition assistance use; interviewed service-level and education counselors from each military service; and conducted nongeneralizable discussion groups with active-duty commissioned officers at the Army base in Fort Benning, Georgia.

For more information, contact Brenda S. Farrell at (202) 512-3604 or

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Education or training costsEducation programsEducational benefitsFederal assistance programsMilitary departmentsMilitary educationMilitary forcesMilitary officersNational defenseTuition assistanceHigher education