- - Monday, July 18, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Recruiting and retaining capable and motivated service members is paramount to maintaining a high-quality fighting force to defend our country. It is undeniable that educational and training assistance programs are critical to attracting men and women to join and remain in military service. These promised and earned education benefits not only ensure readiness while on active duty, but they also help prepare our servicemen and women to succeed later in civilian life.

Since its inception in the 1970s, the Defense Department’s Tuition Assistance Program, along with educational opportunities provided to active-duty members by colleges serving the military, has allowed service members to avoid the challenges I faced. In 1958, I was the 18-year-old breadwinner for my family; working as a draftsman while attending college at night. Like so many young men at the time, I received my draft notice. I wanted to use my engineering background so I enlisted in the U.S. Navy, putting my college education on hold, in hopes of obtaining my degree through the Navy’s Enlisted Scientific Education Program. Starting as mess cook on a diesel attack submarine, I worked my way up through the ranks to eventually earn my commission together with my Navy Wings of Gold, which was difficult without a college degree.

After serving two tours in Vietnam, I was reassigned to an aviation training squadron in Pensacola, Fla., as a flight instructor. My squadron commander allowed me to return to night school at the University of West Florida, enabling me to obtain my college degree. The university generously gave me credit for courses completed before I enlisted and for my Navy training. Eleven years after I began my studies, with a forced six-year hiatus, I was finally able to earn my bachelor’s degree. My degree allowed me to avail myself of another Department of Defense educational program, the Excess Leave Program, and enter law school. That was followed by service in the Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps, and then to the White House as an associate counsel to President Ronald Reagan, Department of Defense general counsel, undersecretary of the Navy and, eventually, secretary of the Navy. Instead of having to spend a decade to earn a college degree, today’s service members have the Tuition Assistance Program and multiple types of higher education institutions from which to choose what works best for them.

Further benefiting active-duty service members today is modern technology — the internet. No longer do they have to put their education on hold in order to serve their country. Online education now makes it possible for them to pursue their educational goals, regardless of transfers or deployments. In fact, it is now possible for service members to be in combat zones while simultaneously continuing their studies. Online education has been so successful that more than 80 percent of military students currently take online courses.

The U.S. Senate in general, and Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia in particular, deserve much credit for helping active-duty service members who take online courses through passage of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act. The legislation includes a provision that affords online military students the same privilege — to regularly meet in person with their academic advisers — as do students taking an on-base class, by granting their advisers regular and recurring installation access. In recognizing the convenience, flexibility and significant use of online education by the military, the Senate is closing a loophole that denied or limited base access to online military students by their academic advisers, who have been proven to help students succeed with course completion and, ultimately, graduation.

Unfortunately, some opponents of this provision have mischaracterized it as somehow harming veterans when, in fact, it only deals with active-duty military personnel on installations. These individuals have also asserted that it opens the door to predatory advertising, marketing and recruiting practices. In fact, such practices are currently barred by installation Education Service Officers as required by a contractual Memorandum of Understanding that every academic institution must sign; and the Education Service Officers continue to oversee all advertising, marketing and recruiting activities in the Senate-passed provision. A few years ago, there were a handful of bad actors — academic institutions that deserved to be punished. Since then, a presidential executive order and a detailed 26-page Memorandum of Understanding have helped prevent such abuses; and the Department of Defense has rightfully penalized the violators.

These same opponents want to strike the Senate provision from the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act when it moves to conference committee with the House of Representatives.

Those in uniform deserve regular and sufficient access to in-person academic counseling whether or not their academic institutions are online or on-ground, for-profit or nonprofit, private or public; they should not be unfairly punished by politics or arbitrary policies that deny promised and earned education benefits. Failing to keep intact this provision, which helps four out of five military students taking online courses, would predictably and irreparably harm recruitment, retention, readiness and the opportunity for our service members to succeed in life after serving their country.

H. Lawrence Garrett III served as the 68th secretary of the Navy.

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