The number of spouses of junior personnel who are using the Defense Department’s spouse tuition assistance program declined by about 45 percent between 2011 and 2017, according to a new report by government auditors.

About 7 percent of eligible spouses used the My Career Advancement Accounts in 2017, according to the report from auditors in the Government Accountability Office. The program, commonly referred to as MyCAA, provides up to $4,000 in tuition assistance for education or training for spouses of service members in the paygrades of E1 to E5, W1 to W2, and O1 to O2.

MyCAA funds can be used only for the pursuit of certificates, licenses, or associate degrees in a portable career field ― a high-growth and high-demand field that is most likely to have job openings near military installations. A recent Rand report found that the program may be contributing to higher retention rates, as well as helping the spouses’ job prospects and earnings.

Auditors said the number of military spouses receiving tuition assistance through MyCAA declined from 38,000 in fiscal 2011 to about 21,000 in fiscal 2017.

That 21,000 represented about 7 percent of the 302,000 eligible spouses using the program, which was similar to the rates for fiscal years 2014 through 2016, auditors stated.

In 2011 about 10 percent of eligible spouses were using the program.

“While we are not particularly surprised by a decline in utilization of the program, the rate decrease from 2011 to 2017 is alarming,” said Jennifer Davis, government relations deputy director for the National Military Family Association. "Since we know, based on DoD’s own data, that over 30 percent of employed military spouses are in fields requiring a license or certification which are covered by MyCAA, and military families [make permanent change of station moves] every two to three years on average, a 40-plus percent drop in program utilization is significant.

“This clearly shows that the program is not fulfilling the intent and need of these spouses. We urge DoD and Congress to look at ways to tweak the program in an effort to maximize its impact on military spouse education and employment.”

While NMFA understands the need to limit the eligibility, she said, the program may be too rank-restrictive.

“For many spouses of junior-ranked service members, there may be an overload of information, a lack of understanding of support programs in place and which ones are service-specific or DoD-wide, changes in family situations or any number of other challenges."

If the program were expanded to include spouses of those in the ranks of E6 and O3, for example, there would be more usage. “We also believe expanding the program to cover supervision hours for spouses pursuing a mental health profession would increase utilization while also encouraging growth in a high-demand sector of the workforce,” she said.

DoD officials attributed the decline partly to the decreases in the active duty forces, the improvements in the labor market, and to lack of awareness of the program, according to GAO. Survey data of spouses in 2015 as well as 2017 show that spouses noted they didn’t have time for additional education and training because of family and personal obligations. In the 2017 survey, while 21 percent of spouses who were aware of MyCAA said they didn’t have that additional time, a higher percentage ― 39 percent ― of spouses of enlisted members in paygrades E1 to E4 cited that reason.

Others noted they needed education, training or testing not covered by MyCAA, or they weren’t interested in additional education or training.

In the 2015 and 2017 surveys of active-duty spouses, about half of all spouses said they weren’t aware of the MyCAA program.

DoD officials have been ramping up outreach to increase awareness of the program over the past several years, but GAO noted some issues with that. As of February, some of the DoD outreach materials contained inaccurate website information. DoD changed the web address in July 2018, as part of a move to a cloud platform. In addition, the website experienced technical problems after that move, from July through August 2018, causing some spouses to be unable to register for Fall 2018 classes. There were 13 outages of MyCAA from June through November 2018. Auditors also had difficulty accessing the website from mobile devices ― yet 30 percent of those who visit the MyCAA site do so through a mobile device, according to DoD.

Following the GAO draft report, DoD updated all the MyCAA outreach materials.

“We encourage DoD to maintain a critical eye regarding preventable mistakes in the future,” Davis said, to avoid creating barriers for spouses which could discourage further exploration.

“We have developed a robust communication strategy for the MyCAA program, to include regular updates to associated outreach materials,” wrote Ann G. Johnston, deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy, in the DoD response to the GAO draft report. “We will continue to ensure that military spouses are aware of our resources and that those resources are easily accessible,” she wrote.

“Supporting military spouse education and career opportunities is a top priority of my office.”

The GAO was required to review the participation and awareness of the MyCAA program, because of a provision in the fiscal 2019 National Defense Authorization Act.

Over the years, a number of spouses have asked that the MyCAA program be expanded to more spouses, and for a wider variety of educational programs, such as bachelor’s degrees.

When the full-scale MyCAA program was launched in 2009, it was available to any military spouse for a variety of educational programs. But it was abruptly shut down in early 2010 because so many spouses had registered that DoD was overwhelmed by the demand – and there wasn’t enough money budgeted to meet that demand.

DoD then scaled it back, limiting eligibility to spouses in only junior ranks.

More details about the program, including information about registering, can be found at https://mycaa.militaryonesource.mil/mycaa.