A new website that some 100,000 soldiers use to access tuition benefits has been broken for months, and the problem has caught the attention and ire of lawmakers.
The Facebook page for the Army's tuition assistance program and a Reddit community have been flooded with daily complaints from soldiers that they are going into debt to cover schooling charges, are too afraid to begin college with benefits being unreliable, or saying their degrees are on hold until their schooling is paid for, something that could hold back their military careers. Some also say they are having difficulties signing up for new courses because the schools have not received payment for previous classes.
The problem could persist for up to a year, a congressional staffer said. But Army officials are now giving assurances that soldiers will be reimbursed for any out-of-pocket costs they incur due to the snafu.
Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston told reporters Wednesday that troops shouldn't be paying out of pocket to begin with, adding that they will be repaid.
"Soldiers should not be paying for their education expenses. The Army will pay for those approved costs," Grinston said. "This won't be resolved until the new system is fully operational."
The issue began in February when the Army switched from the online platform GoArmyEd, run by IBM, to ArmyIgnitED, a service built by contractor Deloitte.
"America made a solemn promise to our service members with the passage of the first G.I. Bill in the 1940s that no one who serves our country should have to pay out of pocket for tuition or be saddled with college debt," Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., the chair of the House Armed Services Military Personnel Committee, said in a statement. "We must make sure that we're keeping that promise."
It is unclear whether Congress plans hearings on the issue.
An aide for Speier said about 80,000 soldiers are receiving tuition assistance with no problem, but that still leaves thousands of troops in the position of having to pay out of pocket, leaving school, or having their military careers stalled for not having enough civilian education to qualify for promotion.
"This process has been slow but should be mostly complete in August, which should smooth the process," Speier's aide said. "Full functionality of the new system is not expected until 2022, so expect some more growing pains."
Officials with Deloitte did not respond to a request for comment and were not present at a press conference Wednesday about problems with the website.
"The buck stops here; I'm responsible to fix this problem," Lt. Gen. Ted Martin, commander of the Combined Arms Center and executive vice chancellor of Army University, told reporters during the press conference. "I sincerely apologize to the soldiers and families out there with the rollout."
Col. Charles Rambo, director of Army University, told reporters that Deloitte's new platform is "stable," adding that there was "extensive" beta testing. But the site began to experience problems when it went live and 15 years of data from the old service started migrating to Deloitte's service.
The Army can't go back to using the old website while the new one is fixed because the contract for GoArmyEd has expired, he said.
"To be honest, we did not anticipate it being that difficult," Rambo said. "We've identified that problem."
If a soldier does pay out of pocket for authorized courses, they have a year to file a reimbursement claim. But there's confusion on what soldiers should do. Army officials are unsure how long it may take for a soldier to be paid back and have given out conflicting guidance.
Some schools may require students to pay upfront. In an April memo, Army officials said "soldiers will have to use alternative funding," and should consider withdrawing from school to avoid paying out of pocket.
"Soldiers enrolled in classes beginning 23 April 2021 and later should contact their [school] to discuss withdrawing from these classes if they do not want to pay out-of-pocket," states the memo, which has since been rescinded but is still online.
There are also concerns that the tuition problems create room for bad actors to swoop in and pressure soldiers into bad loans.
The Army does have a system to request an exception of policy from schools, essentially giving those institutions an IOU. That might work for large, high-profile universities, but may not with smaller schools that have little experience dealing with the military.
"Essentially what the Army has done is tell the soldier to figure things out on their own with the school," said Will Hubbard, interim chief policy officer for Veterans Education Success. "Good schools are likely to wait, but we know that not all schools in higher ed are ... that good. I would bet some are encouraging students to take out loans, which would be a serious problem."
Grinston wants soldiers who have tuition issues or are seeking reimbursement to go to this link to submit a complaint.
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.