• Wed. Aug 4th, 2021

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The Army pitched tuition aid to its members. But soldiers say the new system doesn’t work.

Every day for the past month, ArmyIgnitED’s Facebook page has gotten a smattering of new comments containing complaints from soldiers who are unable to use the Army’s new tuition assistance program because of a technical glitch.

There are now more than 300 comments on the post dated May 3 from service members asking when the tuition assistance program, known as Army IgnitED, will work again. Soldiers complain the Army has provided few answers and has not communicated a timeline to the active-duty soldiers, National Guard members and reservists the delay affects.

Tuition assistance is a key recruiting tool that helps pay for soldiers to attend school, and Army IgnitED — the service branch’s delivery system of that benefit — has been down due to an unexplained technical glitch since it first launched in March. A lack of clarity, consistent communication and guidance from the service branch’s leadership has left many service members to pay for their classes out of pocket, causing some to dropout of school, see their degrees delayed or careers go on hold, they said.

“It’s frustrating, it’s life-altering and there’s no repercussions for any part of it,” said one soldier who has unexpectedly paid $1,500 out of pocket so far because of the delay. “I’ve had to cancel some of the courses I was going to take because of the sheer cost, so that pushes me back a semester from graduating.”

All soldiers using tuition assistance are affected by the delayed program, Maj. Ashley Bain, a spokeswoman for Army University, said in an email. More than 110,000 soldiers used the tuition assistance program in the last fiscal year and more than 81,000 soldiers have enrolled in more than 255,000 courses so far this year.

“It’s frustrating, it’s life-altering and there’s no repercussions for any part of it.”

NBC News spoke to seven soldiers at various points in their careers who were unable to use the Army’s new tuition assistance program. They said they have received little to no direction in the interim. All seven service members spoke to NBC News on the condition of anonymity out of fear that sharing their experiences with the press could negatively affect their careers.

The Army tuition assistance program is authorized by law and pays for soldiers to go to school, covering tuition costs for certifications, as well as associate, bachelor’s or master’s degrees. The Army provides up to $250 per semester hour, and the benefit maxes out at $4,000 for the fiscal year.

Some were unable to sign up for new classes for the summer until the school received payment, and others paid for their programs out of their own pockets and worried they would not be reimbursed by the Army once it sorted out the tech issues.

“I signed a contract and in that contract it says I am entitled to 16 semester hours per fiscal year, at $250 per semester hour,” one soldier said. “And for this fiscal year, I have not been able to access a penny.”

Tuition assistance previously ran through a system called GoArmyEd, but in February it was moved to Army IgnitED, which was supposed to become fully operational on March 8. That system failed almost immediately, according to the Army. In the ensuing months, the service branch has depended on a mixture of manual payments and IOUs to colleges and universities where soldiers have taken classes.

“The biggest glitch” preventing the launch came when the Army was unable to transfer student data stored from previous years on GoArmyEd to the new program, Bain said, adding that “limited user testing” revealed numerous items leading to glitches throughout the system.

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Developers realized “very late prior to the established launch date,” that the system was having issues, she said. The Army now predicts that “we can open the system Army-wide to support Tuition Assistant enrollments” by early July.

“The data transfer turned out to be much more complicated than originally expected,” Bain said, explaining that the system now relies on schools to upload soldiers’ degree files into ArmyIgnitED manually to ensure they’re enrolled in courses, which “is taking some time.”

That means the Army and its developers are now working with schools to teach them how to upload those files, so that they can ultimately pay them. In the intervening time, they’ve developed a temporary work around, or “exception to policy” as the Army calls it, that requires colleges and universities to essentially begin an invoice that the service branch will eventually pay — either manually or once the system is fully operational.

Vantage Point Consulting, a veteran-run IT firm, oversees technical support for the program. On May 27, the firm held a webinar for many participating education institutions regarding the delay in which the hosts — including Army leaders, Vantage Point Consulting and Deloitte, the firm that created ArmyIgnitED — promised on a slide that “The Army will pay its bills!”

Vantage Point Consulting and Deloitte did not respond to requests for comment.

Two slides later, however, the organizers noted they had only begun manually processing 459 invoices that were submitted between Jan. 7 and Feb. 10 in mid-May and hoped to complete them within two weeks. They said they were still finalizing a manual invoice process for soldiers who had approved tuition assistance requests 60 days prior to GoArmyEd’s “sunset date” of Feb. 11 and expected to be finished with those at the end of June.

The remaining invoices were expected to be created and processed through ArmyIgnitED. They said they may also have to provide those payments manually if the system continues to not work, leading to further delays.

At the end of the webinar, participants — including many educational institutions that were expected to learn how to upload information and help make this new program they’re using function — had posted more than 100 questions. There were 10 minutes remaining for a Q&A portion, but organizers fielded none of the inquiries, stating they would provide responses later in a newsletter.

While some schools have accepted the delay in payment and limited the fallout on their students, some soldiers said they had begun paying out of their own pocket to attend their classes or been locked out of attending classes entirely.

One soldier serving in the Middle East anticipates leaving the military in the next year. He said the delay has caused him to pay more than $4,000 for his online courses, depleting the savings he had accrued to transition to civilian life.

“I definitely thought that I was up for big things going into my last year. I finished up at college because you’re overseas anyway so there’s not a lot else to do but study and save,” he said. “This all puts me in a very awkward situation — that is for sure. I will have to have a job on day one because I will not have the money saved in my account that I planned on.”

One enlisted soldier who intends to make a career of the Army said it had put his ambition to become a warrant officer behind by a year. He had aimed to pull together a packet to apply for the higher rank, but other officers recommended he first take some college courses.

Because of the program’s delay, the soldier said he has been unable to sign up for classes at his school and now will miss the deadline to apply to become a warrant officer.

“I’m going to stay in, but I totally get it when I’ve got a soldier and he says he doesn’t trust the Army anymore,” he said. “Like they couldn’t even give me college? They promise this and that, and they just overpromise and underdeliver.”

Another soldier said his college would not issue him a diploma after he had completed his degree in May until the Army paid its share. When he emailed the Army Service Center about the problem, he received a generic response that said, “Your reported Incident has been resolved with the following resolution: [Tuition assistance] is not currently available.”

The email, which NBC News reviewed, then directed him to work with his school to agree to the Army’s “exception to policy.”

“The schools do not have to honor those, and a lot of schools aren’t going to,” said the soldier, who noted the delay could affect a promotion he is applying for in July. “In my case, I can’t get my diploma until the Army pays what they owe, and they don’t know when they’re going to do that.”

There also has been limited information or new updates directed at soldiers from the Army itself. Reddit users on the site’s dedicated Army page have started a letter-writing campaign and directed social media posts at members of Congress and senior military leadership. Task and Purpose, a media outlet dedicated to military news, first reported about the Facebook and Reddit complaints on Tuesday.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, the New York Democrat, leads the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel. Her office said she has reached out to the Army about the technology issue and is aware of the ongoing problem.
Charlie Neibergall / AP file

Still, soldiers feel they have received few answers.

Evan Lukaske, a spokesman for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said the lawmaker, who leads the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, has reached out to the Army about the technology issue and is aware of the ongoing problem.

“She has also insisted that the Army update service members at least every 30 days on the status of the ArmyIgnitED program, and she will continue working to ensure that students are not forced to drop out of courses and can be reimbursed for any out-of-pocket costs incurred due to this problem,” Lukaske said.

But service members are skeptical. Occasionally Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston has responded to tweets regarding the problem. The official response, however, remains fairly limited, and there is no clear timeline on a fix — despite Grinston stating on Twitter in mid-May that ArmyIgnitED was “expected to be fully operational this month.”

Bain said the Army has also communicated with soldiers regarding the delays through internal messaging systems on top of its social media outreach, but many soldiers remain confused or have given up on the program entirely.

Advocates said the limited amount of information is increasingly problematic and could put soldiers in a difficult position.

“The biggest challenge is that there has not been clear communication about it,” said Will Hubbard, the interim chief policy officer at Veterans Education Success, a nonpartisan veteran advocacy group. “If you’re a soldier and you’re depending on this to further your career, you haven’t been left in a great spot. At this point the Army has really left little guidance to soldiers or the schools.”

Hubbard also emphasized that the Army has left some student soldiers potentially vulnerable to bad actors. He said the lack of guidance allows for shady lenders and for-profit colleges and universities to potentially take advantage of soldiers who are in a financially precarious position by pushing them to sign up for high-interest loans or pay out of pocket.

“You end up being dependent on the education system itself for guidance,” he said.

Bain said schools “have acknowledged that Soldiers who were charged late fees will be reimbursed” once Army pays their bills, but it remains unclear if the schools will reimburse students or the Army will take care of the cost. It is also unclear if all schools have agreed to these terms, what specific late fees will be paid or if soldiers will be reimbursed for tuition payments they’ve already made in the meantime.

Bain did not respond when asked to clarify.

Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston has responded to tweets regarding the delayed tuition assistance, but soldiers said they feel the response from Army leadership has been limited and disappointing. Sgt. Phillip McTaggart / U.S. Army Photo file

Meanwhile, the Army has directed many soldiers to education centers located at their nearest barracks, but the soldiers who spoke to NBC News said these centers had little to add and some did not have access to an Army education center because of where they were stationed.

The lack of direction, transparency and attention made many feel as though the Army did not care about their careers or futures.

“It’s a lack of concern. The Army can do things to you, and you just kind of suck it up and deal,” said one reservist who served more than 15 years and has paid around $3,800 out of his pocket during the delay. “I don’t know what project manager planned this project out, but he should be fired. I would have fired him if he worked for me.”

Two soldiers said a common joke in the service is that the Army will pay for service members’ tuition, but the cost is that soldiers have to figure out how the program’s systems work.

But the joke does not make up for the deep bitterness many feel.

One soldier, who joined the military specifically because the Army would help pay his tuition, said the delayed payments have caused his school to block him from signing up for new classes. He can’t afford to pay out of pocket while supporting his family of four, and he said others in his unit have had their college balances sent to collections.

The lack of answers from the Army, he said, has damaged his unit’s faith in its leadership.

“We feel like our leadership is just totally disconnected from the hardship that’s falling on us,” the soldier said. “We keep hearing about all these minor or trivial changes that the Army wants to make, but they really haven’t said a single word about our tuition assistance. It’s just radio silence.”