The Pentagon’s decision to suspend tuition assistance because of the government shutdown prompted Northeastern University president Joseph E. Aoun to send a strongly worded letter Sunday to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in a plea to reinstate the aid for active-duty service members.
The cutoff affects as many as two dozen service members who plan to begin classes at Northeastern next week and may be forced to withdraw, university officials said.
“We are extremely dismayed by reports from service members that some branches of the service have advised students not to enroll in classes beginning after Oct. 1, or to withdraw from their current programs,” Aoun wrote.
“Our active-duty military, Reserve, and National Guard members who put their lives on the line to protect us deserve far better from their country than to be prevented from accessing the higher education benefits they were promised.”
More than 100 active-duty service members are enrolled at Northeastern, and most of them already have received tuition assistance for classes that began in September. But up to two dozen students at the College of Professional Studies now find their plans upended by the shutdown, said Anthony Erwin, dean for student financial services.
“Without this aid or something to replace it, they would not continue their enrollment,” Erwin said.
As a result, university officials said they do not plan to bill service members for tuition assistance they lose because of the shutdown. Financial aid from the Defense Department’s program, which had been assisting 300,000 service members around the country, can reach $250 per semester hour and $4,500 for the fiscal year.
“No active-duty member of the armed forces will be responsible for tuition charges incurred as a result of the shutdown for the time being,” Aoun wrote Hagel. “I respectfully urge you to instruct the services to continue processing [financial aid] applications immediately.”
Northeastern spokesman Michael Armini said the decision to suspend the tuition program came as a shock because the university had contacted federal officials about the shutdown’s consequences.
“We checked on Pell grants, Perkins loans, and other well-known funding sources,” Armini said, and were told that “everything was in good shape for the fall semester.”
Other universities in the area might not be affected immediately because nearly all courses began weeks ago. At Boston University, for example, most tuition payments for the fall semester were made in August by its small number of active-duty service members, said Colin Riley, the university spokesman.
On an Army website, confusion was rampant among service members who posted questions about the shutdown’s effect on the tuition program, which helps service members who enroll for off-duty classes.
“If my tuition assistance is already approved for classes that start on Oct. 21, am I good to go?” asked Santonia Johnson, an Army staff sergeant, on the site.
“No, it will be canceled, and you will have to pay for your class,” answered Lisa Law Rankins, an education services specialist at the US Army Education Center.
Terry Hartle of the American Council on Education said the tuition help will be missed.
“This is a significant number of people,” said Hartle, a senior vice president for the Washington-based trade group, which represents colleges and universities. “Many institutions are not able to do what Northeastern is doing in terms of taking care of the service members. It’s another dismal impact produced by the government shutdown.”
The program, which Hartle said is the only financial-assistance program for active-duty service members, helps its beneficiaries upgrade their skills through classes attended in person or online.
“It’s very much in the Department of Defense’s interest to have this sort of a program,” Hartle said. “It’s in nobody’s interest to have it disrupted.”
Soldiers were cautioned on the GoArmyEd website, which accepts applications for tuition assistance, that they may run up debt if they attend courses during the shutdown, even if an aid request has been approved.
According to a link on the website, “these actions are unprecedented in the history of the Army’s program, but we are bound by budgetary law. We regret these decisions and hope for a speedy resolution to the budget crisis.”
The government, the Army said, is prohibited “from obligating and expending funds without an appropriation bill from Congress.”
Erwin, the student financial services dean at Northeastern, said the cutoff also could affect students whose fall tuition has been paid. The uncertainty surrounding the availability of funds next semester “leaves students in limbo,” Erwin said.
Northeastern officials will review the cost of covering future tuition bills if the shutdown continues and assistance is not available for January, Erwin said.
“If we have the resources, we will make them available to them, but we have to figure out what the costs will be,” the dean said.
Aoun urged Hagel to approve tuition applications on a contingency basis while the government is shut down.
“We believe higher education has an obligation to contribute to the security of our nation, and to support the women and men of the armed forces who serve and protect us,” Aoun wrote.Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.