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Government shutdown threatens to cut college courses of Fort Drum soldiers

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FORT DRUM — If the government shutdown continues, more than 100 soldiers using the Army’s Tuition Assistance Program to take Jefferson Community College courses on post may get a rude surprise the day before the start of their late fall session courses this week: Money will not be made available for them to pay for their coursework.

“It’s frustrating,” said Donald R. Johnson, JCC’s director of military programs. “They’re frustrated.”

Goarmyed.com, which facilitates the Army’s program, has a message informing potential students that all approved and pending tuition assistance requests for classes, even those filed before the shutdown, will be rejected unless a budget or continuing resolution is approved by Congress and the president.

That gives little lead time for the late fall session, which starts Thursday. If a deal isn’t passed, Mr. Johnson said, soldiers will be told on Wednesday that their benefits won’t be available.

The Army’s tuition assistance program, for which all soldiers are eligible, including Army Reserve and Army National Guard members, pays up to $250 per credit hour, with an annual limit of $4,500.

Of the 281 enrollments for the college’s classes on post for the late fall session, 114 of them are soldiers using tuition assistance benefits.

If the benefits are not available, Mr. Johnson said the school could close as many as five of the 20 courses it is offering for the session.

Still, news has slowly been trickling in for soldiers interested in furthering their education.

Mr. Johnson said that since the shutdown started, he has been informing two to three soldiers each day that the tuition program is not available.

“You just try to assure them that regardless of Washington, we’re still caring about their education,” he said.

In the meantime, there are few options for students to fill in that gap. Mr. Johnson said about a quarter of the soldier students have applied for federal student aid. Another option is the state’s tuition assistance program.

The uncertainty of when a deal will be made on the budget means another waiting game for students and administrators.

“It’s the nature of the beast,” Mr. Johnson said.

In the past few years, the tuition assistance program has been a valuable benefit for Fort Drum soldiers pursuing college coursework at JCC and other schools.

According to an economic impact statement released by the post in March, 1,517 soldiers were authorized a total of $911,367 in tuition assistance benefits in fiscal year 2012, about $600 per soldier. In the previous fiscal year, the post authorized $721,000 in benefits for 525 soldiers, about $1,373.33 per soldier.

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