03/15/13 — College ready to help airmen

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College ready to help airmen

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on March 15, 2013 1:46 PM

A move to suspend college tuition assistance for active-duty military personnel will definitely be felt by Wayne Community College, officials said Wednesday.

The Air Force announced earlier this week that airmen have been notified that new applications for tuition assistance won't be accepted because of the $85 billion in automatic federal spending cuts, effective March 1. Similar suspensions had been made last week by the Army, Marine Corps and Coast Guard, and are still pending with the U.S. Navy.

The assistance program has reportedly paid up to $250 per semester hour for active duty personnel, or as much as $4,500 per year.

At Wayne Community College, that could translate to an estimated $80,000-120,000 a year, said Tara Humphries, public information officer.

"That is actually what the government sends us checks for," she explained. "That's how much it's worth but the numbers are not that big. The number of military students is actually very small because we're talking about active duty that get tuition assistance and not our veterans.

"The veterans numbers would make the number of military attending much higher, but they get the Post-911 G.I. Bill. That's a whole different thing and at this point that money has not been suspended."

Officials at Mount Olive College appeared less concerned.

Dr. Phillip Kerstetter, president, declined comment and Barbara Kornegay, vice president of enrollment, said last year the number of military-affiliated students was 300 although not all claimed tuition assistance and some were veterans.

But at WCC, which not only serves a military clientele but also offers a satellite program on Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, officials are bracing for the fallout.

"WCC had 125 active duty military members enrolled in the fall of 2012 and of those, 114 received tuition assistance," Ms. Humphries said. "For spring 2013, which is the current semester, 104 active duty military members were enrolled and 72 of those received tuition assistance. This is out of 3,970 total college credit students enrolled in the current semester.

"We cannot separate these numbers by the student's military branch affiliation, but the vast majority are members of the Air Force."

She also pointed out that they are specifically active duty members and do not include veterans, spouses or dependents.

Now the airmen, like other potential students, must seek financial aid from other sources.

"They are still eligible for (WCC) Foundation scholarships, for federal financial aid such as Pell Grants. So there are other options, but this particular vehicle is suspended through the end of the military fiscal year, which is October," she said. "Of course, by then we'll have already had summer semester, first eight weeks of fall semester, probably have already registered for spring semester."

In anticipation of the funding suspension, the college is poised to receive additional requests.

The college's Foundation was established in 1986 as a result of the recognition that tax dollars were insufficient to meet all the educational needs of students desiring an education at WCC. This past fiscal year, it awarded 417 scholarships to 265 students, worth an estimated $260,000, said Adrienne Northington, associate director.

It likely will receive even more requests now, Ms. Humphries said.

"(The Foundation) has been made aware that there may be increased demand for its funds and will redouble its efforts to serve this population," she said.

Jack Kannan, executive director, said Thursday morning he had already had discussions with representatives from the Air Force base about the situation and is in the process of establishing a committee.

"The committee is looking into handling this for our airman that have the need," he said.

Dr. Peggy Teague, vice president for academic and student services at WCC, said the impact might not be immediate, but will likely be felt as early as this summer.

"Since our college income comes from the FTE (full-time equivalents) we generate, we will feel the potential loss of these students, but the real financial stress will be on the men and women who want to continue to pursue their higher education degrees and now have to do it totally at their own expense," said Dr. Peggy Teague, vice president for academic and student services at the college.

While the news sent officials scrambling to reassess the situation, Ms. Humphries said the community college will continue to be an advocate for access to education.

"The bottom line is that the academic progress of some students will be slowed or stopped," she said. "WCC will help those who want to better themselves identify other assistance options."