On Thursday, the U.S. House passed a spending bill that preserves college aid for service members, but for Shane Kuhnhenn and others, the future remains cloudy.
A National Guardsman and White Swan resident, Kuhnhenn is among roughly two dozen service members at Yakima Valley Community College and Central Washington University who rely, at least in part, on the funding that was cut when the sequester took effect earlier this month.
While the spending bill was previously passed by the Senate, it still needs to be signed by President Barack Obama and only assures the tuition funding until October.
Students who didn’t apply for funding before March 8 can no longer receive any, and don’t know when it will become available.
The promise of paying for college — something 19-year-old Kuhnhenn said his family couldn’t afford on its own — was a big incentive to join the military.
“The National Guard, it’s one of their main recruiting tools — pay for school. It’s on all the notebooks they pass out,” he said.
The funding, which is distributed by the Department of Defense, is separate from the more famous G.I. Bill, which has helped veterans finance college educations since the end of World War II.
Kuhnhenn joined six days after turning 17. He underwent basic training the summer after his junior year in high school, and advanced training in chemical, biological, radioactive and nuclear warfare the summer after graduating from Zillah High School.
He didn’t finish his training in time to start classes at YVCC in the fall, and had to wait for winter quarter.
Despite a 45-minute drive from his home in White Swan, Kuhnhenn said he was excited when he started classes in January.
For a reason that isn’t clear, YVCC was late in receiving his winter quarter tuition aid from the government. As a result, the school delayed his ability to register for spring quarter, he said.
Then on March 8, the Army, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard suspended the aid program. Students who registered earlier were able to receive aid.
Getting the benefit he’d been promised was a long process, and “then to get it cut off as soon as I got in school seemed unfair,” Kuhnhenn said.
While Congress has passed legislation restoring the program, it isn’t clear when that will happen.
“There are still a lot of things that need to happen. The president needs to sign it, they need to figure out how they’re going to reinstate it. So, it’s going to be awhile” before the program starts paying out again, said John McMahon, executive director of the military program at Pierce College, a two-year community college with campuses in Lakewood and Puyallup. It also offers classes at Joint Base Lewis-McChord and online.
During a one-year period ending last June, the school’s military program had more than 2,000 students taking classes in person and online.
The benefit made up about 35 percent — or $2.8 million — of the program’s tuition revenue, McMahon said.
At the University of Washington’s three campuses, 95 students received tuition assistance for the winter quarter.
The impacts are smaller at YVCC and CWU, where last quarter 15 and 10 students attended, respectively — but the effect is no less important to the affected students.
In the meantime, students can access other resources to pay for school, such as the G.I. Bill and federal financial aid, or see if their school allows paying on installment plans, McMahon said.
Taking college courses is sometimes necessary for promotion in the military, and is vital for service members after they leave the military, McMahon said.
Pierce College’s students take classes in person and online, with some logging in from Afghanistan.
Last year, one student emailed an instructor asking for more time to take a test, McMahon said. “He had to power down his computer so he could go into a bunker during a rocket attack.
“Some of these folks are really on the front lines,” he said.
• Dan Catchpole can be reached at 509-759-7850 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/dcatchpole.