How many sailors used education benefits to pay for college last year?
If you ask the Department of Defense and the Navy, you’ll likely get vastly different answers. The Marine Corps and DoD similarly disagree.
According to DoD, the number of Navy sailors using tuition assistance, or TA, has been up and down dramatically during the past several years.
The Pentagon's central office shows a decline of nearly 14 percent in the number of sailors taking TA classes between fiscal years 2015 and 2016 — by far the steepest decline among all branches of the military. And DoD numbers from one year earlier show a more than 31 percent increase in sailors using TA between fiscal 2014 and 2015 — by far the steepest increase among all branches of the military over that time period.
But public affairs officers for the Navy say that’s not accurate; the service’s own numbers have been "very consistent" from year to year. Rather than swinging from huge increases to huge decreases, they actually show slight growth in fiscal 2016, not a precipitous drop, according to the Navy.
Figures provided by the Marine Corps also do not match DoD data, Military Times has learned. The Marine and Family Programs Division's records show a nearly 10,000-person drop between fiscal 2013 and 2014, followed by growth in fiscal 2015 and a slight dip last year. The DoD's figures show a steady decline in Marine TA usage since fiscal 2013.
As of press time, DoD and the Navy had not come to an agreement on which figures are accurate, nor did DoD respond to request for comment on why the Marine Corps figures don't match up.
Navy officials reached out to Military Times about the discrepancies after a story earlier this month that, in part, analyzed a drop in the overall number of active-duty service members using TA, a federal benefit that covers the cost of tuition, up to particular limits.
Data the DoD provided for the story showed that 47,796 sailors used TA in fiscal 2016, compared to 55,304 the year before. This information is also publicly available for download on the department’s TA DECIDE web page, which is intended to help inform active-duty service members about the schools they can attend on TA.
The Navy Education and Training Command provided very different figures. According to Lt. Commander Katherine Meadows of NETC, 46,043 sailors used TA last year, while 45,971 sailors used the benefit in fiscal 2015.
“Our TA usage in the Navy has shown to be very consistent over the past few years,” Meadows said in an email. “There was a slight decrease in FY14, however that was due in part to the government shutdown.”
NETC reports its tallies to DoD via an internal system. It’s unclear why the numbers, including figures for course enrollment and total cost of TA, don’t match — or at what point in the process the discrepancy occurred.
For nearly two weeks, Military Times’ phone calls and emails to DoD personnel about the issue went unanswered. On Thursday, DoD spokesperson Laura Ochoa said it could take up to another month for the department to review its data “as the office will need to re-run its reports amidst additional priorities.”
DoD did not respond to requests for further comment.
Jonathan Woods, deputy chief of DoD Voluntary Education Programs, in March indicated that the apparent 31-percent increase between fiscal 2014 and 2015 was the result of a calculation error in the TA numbers provided by DoD.
Yet when the Defense Department released updated TA usage numbers in April, a month after Woods spoke with Military Times, that apparent error was not corrected and the data was unchanged. Since May, Military Times staff has attempted to confirm the accuracy of the data via phone calls and emails to five DoD employees about 10 times.
Early on, Woods said he believed the department had already taken care of the discrepancy but would provide confirmation. He did not, and in June, Military Times published its annual analysis of TA and GI Bill trends based on the only data available.
Those numbers showed a 4.7 percent drop in overall TA usage between fiscal 2015 and 2016 for all service branches, including the Coast Guard, which falls under the Department of Homeland Security, rather than under DoD. Replacing the DoD’s Navy numbers with the ones provided by Meadows, the overall drop is smaller — 2.2 percent.
And while DoD’s numbers show a 13.6 percent drop for the Navy during that time, the Navy’s show a 0.2 percent growth. This would make the Navy one of only two branches to see an increase in TA usage between fiscal 2015 and 2016 instead of the branch with the steepest decline.
Military Times reached out to education officials from each branch to ask if they, too, had noticed discrepancies in the DoD data. The DoD’s Air Force figures match what the service has on record, according to Hildegard Buan, the Air Force's voluntary education chief.
Pamela Raymer, chief of the Army Continuing Education System, said in an email: "The (Office of the Secretary of Defense) numbers are sufficient." She did not say by press time whether the numbers match what the Army has on record.
The Defense Department did not always provide TA usage information. Going back at least as far as 2009, Military Times collected TA data from each service branch individually.
Then in 2015, while DoD was taking a greater TA oversight role, the department began requiring that all of the requests be handled by DoD instead of the service branches. The data released that year, covering fiscal 2014, and the data released in following years have come directly from the department.