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Tuition assistance suspension irks military spouses

Like thousands of spouses of active-duty military personnel, Sarah Coniglio of Lower Burrell was counting on a grant the federal government offered last year to help cover education costs.

"I considered the money they offered a true blessing," said Coniglio, 22, who is completing her second year at the Boyce Campus of Community College of Allegheny County in hopes of earning a psychology degree.

"Now it looks like we'll have to take out loans that we really can't afford if I want to finish school. It's very unfair," she said.

The program — called Military Spouse Career Advancement Accounts, or MyCAA — offered up to $6,000 for military spouses to pay for college tuition or cover costs associated with professional licenses and certificates.

But heavy response prompted the Department of Defense to abruptly suspend funding last week. About 98,000 military spouses were enrolled in the program when it was suspended, the Defense Department said, and 38,000 more had applied.

"These applications were overwhelming the system intended to support the program and almost reached the budget threshold," said Tommy T. Thomas, deputy undersecretary for Defense who oversees MyCAA. Thomas said the shutdown is temporary, but there's no word on when the program might resume or whether the benefit will be cut.

The Defense Department said it approved six times more grant applications in January than it had in previous months, and demand for February was well above average.

Coniglio said she was counting on the grant so she could transfer to the University of Pittsburgh. Her husband, Sgt. Christopher Coniglio, 25, is an Iraq War veteran who is working as a recruiter for the Army National Guard as he pursues a business degree at the Boyce Campus.

"The DoD showed lack of respect for the spouses," said Rebecca Duncan, a Northeastern Pennsylvania resident married to a Navy sailor stationed in Corpus Christi, Texas. "To me this was a huge slap in our faces."

While the grants are still paying for classes and training for thousands already enrolled, Duncan, 36, of Athens, Bradford County, said the funding suspension left her in limbo.

Duncan said she had been approved for a grant to pursue an applied sciences degree. She learned from her college counselor that the grants had been halted before she could sign up for classes.

A 2005 Rand Corp. study found that military spouses generally make less than those married to someone in the civilian work force. Military spouses are less likely to be employed and more likely to be seeking work, the study said.

Laura Heitink, wife of a Marine Corps recruiter in Carlisle, Cumberland County, said MyCAA had been paying since September for classes toward her degree in health care administration. When she was told last week the program wouldn't cover the cost, she had to use a tax refund check to pay $750 for the class.

"Military spouses, we want a career, but it's hard when you have to move around," said Heitink, 31. "When we first moved here, I went on nine job interviews. Doctors would say to me, 'Well, I want to hire you, but I don't know how long you'll be here."'

On average, military families relocate every three years.

The Defense Department has suggested military spouses consider alternatives to paying for college — such as the new GI Bill, a benefit that service members can now transfer to their spouses and children.

But military personnel must have served for six years and recommit for another four before they're eligible to transfer the benefit to their families.

The GI Bill pays for 36 months of college per family. Many military service members need to reserve that benefit for themselves or want to save it for their children.

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