NASHVILLE, Tenn. --
Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed into law on April 24, 2017 a bill giving Guardsmen in the state 100 percent in-state tuition reimbursement for a first time bachelor’s degree.
The law, called the Tennessee STRONG (Support, Training, and Renewing Opportunity for National Guardsmen) Act, will be an important conduit to help Tennessee Guardsmen achieve their education goals.
“The STRONG Act provides the necessary funding our current members need to further develop themselves and prepare for future challenges in life,” said Chief Master Sgt. Mark Harris, the command chief master sergeant for the Tennessee Air National Guard and the soon to be senior enlisted leader for the Tennessee National Guard. “I believe educational attainments are associated with positive career outcomes to include salary levels, number of promotions, job advancement and mobility.”
The STRONG Act, which was allocated nearly $9 million as a four year pilot program for tuition assistance, should be an important tool to draw in new recruits and retain current Guard members.
“The STRONG Act is a critical tool for the Tennessee National Guard to compete with neighboring states for America's best recruits,” said Harris. “This act gives us the ability to provide the education incentives our young Soldiers and Airmen are looking for.”
“This is huge with it being 100 percent because currently, right now, we are surrounded by five states that offer tuition assistance that is paid at 100 percent, so we lost a lot of members to these states,” said Tech. Sgt. Joseph Wilson, the state tuition assistance manager for the Air National Guard. “Now that this bill has been passed, it’s given us a very huge opportunity to retain and recruit new recruits.”
While the regulations for dispersing the money from the STRONG Act are still being developed, they are hoping to have the program go into effect in August 2017 to pay tuition for the fall semester, said Wilson.
The attention from this bill has piqued the interest of many current and prospective Guardsmen, who have been wanting a tuition assistance program for some time.
“The enthusiasm has been awesome; we noticed and increase in excitement long before the bill passed,” said Harris. “Soldiers and Airmen alike joined in the inquiries we received about the possibilities of an education bill; it’s been great to witness the anticipation of the new STRONG Act and to be a part of this needed program.”
“As soon as it was passed, I started getting phone calls wondering how they can apply and be eligible for it,” said Master Sgt. Lisa Osborne, recruiting and retention manager for the 118th Wing. “The recruiters were getting a lot of questions too.”
While it is unknown at this point as to how many Guardsman will utilize of the STRONG Act’s tuition assistance, there is hope that there will be a large number of people taking advantage of it.
“If we promote this program, educate our members on the process, and follow up with a great customer service, I believe the members will respond in great numbers,” said Harris. “At the end of this pilot program in 2020, I think its importance and need will be evident; as leaders, we need to ensure our members are well educated on this program and maximize its use.”
“I’m looking for at least half of our members to take advantage,” said Wilson. “I would like all of our members who are wanting to get a bachelor’s degree to take advantage of this.”
With more Guardsmen now having access to free education, they will become more trained and prepared for the technical missions performed in the Tennessee National Guard.
“Our mission sets have a global impact every day; looking at the workforce around the world, we find a more competitive world, and job sets are becoming more technical in nature,” said Harris. “As a nation, state, and organization we must continue to lead in innovation, readiness, and development; education is a critical part in this quest. This law provides the basic foundation our Soldiers and Airmen need to meet and exceed life's challenges.”
The STRONG Act, which passed the Tennessee House and Senate unanimously, is a part of the governor’s Drive to 55 initiative, which is to have 55 percent of all Tennesseans achieve a degree or certificate by the year 2025.
“Tuition assistance is helping the government to reach its 55 percent of Tennesseans to become educated,” said Wilson. “Guardsmen becoming more educated will give them opportunities for other jobs, and if they should leave after they get their bachelor’s degree, it makes them more marketable outside of the Guard.”