Sequestration puts damper on Oregon soldiers' college hopes

Sequestration puts damper on Oregon soldiers' college hopes »Play Video
Van Zallee served in Iraq as an Oregon National Guard member. He hopes to be promoted to Major but the Department of Defense suspended tuition assistance because of sequestration, which he says will hurt his chances at the promotion.

SALEM, Ore. – Federal sequestration cuts continue to hit Americans, including military members looking to go to college.

The Department of Defense has suspended tuition assistance, leaving hundreds of Oregon National Guard soldiers without a way to pay part of their college bills.

"I've got kids that are in school, my wife is working," says Capt. Van Zallee. "We're trying right now to make sure that we've got enough to cover those bills."

For Zallee, tuition assistance is the difference-maker in his goal of obtaining an MBA.

"Take that away from me right now means that's not an option. I can't go to school right now because that's not an option," he says.

A business consultant in his day job, Zallee served in Iraq as a guard member and says he needs more education to be promoted to Major in the next few years.

Without help though, he and hundreds of other soldiers may come up short when the bill comes due.

"It's an incentive program. It's not a guarantee; it's not a part of peoples' contracts," says Capt. Stephen Bomar, Oregon National Guard’s director of public affairs.

The suspension instantly cut off 350 Oregon Army National Guard soldiers from the financial aid. Forty-seven soldiers enrolled prior to the cutoff, but their benefits may not last past the spring term if the sequestration cuts remain in effect.

Bomar said the feeling throughout the National Guard is the same.

"It's very disappointing," he says.

Oregon soldiers received more than $2 million in tuition assistance in the last fiscal year spread out among schools such as Portland Community College, Portland State University and the Art Institute of Portland.

"It paid for a good part of my master's degree program, and I truly appreciate it," Bomar says. "And I probably wouldn't have pursued that as far had I not had that opportunity."

But now students and prospective students like Zallee can only hope for Congress to find a way to help the military pay for education.

"In this job market right now a bachelor's degree is almost about what it would have been being an associate's degree five or ten years ago," Zallee says. "To be competitive, you almost have to have your master's now."

The suspension of tuition assistance caught many without a plan to pay for their schooling. The guard is working to direct soldiers toward scholarships and soldiers already benefiting from the GI Bill are not impacted by the sequester.