Mids who don't make it; Tuition repayments: Service academies need consistency in seeking reimbursement.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

RECEIVING A free college education from U.S. taxpayers is the main benefit of enrolling in a service academy. The vast majority of graduates are commissioned as officers and repay their education through years of military service. For the relatively few midshipmen and cadets who don't graduate, some repay the government, some serve in the military and a number never pay back anything.

The unevenness of the treatment of some recently separated midshipmen is raising eyebrows. One of the mids expelled in a 1995 drug scandal persuaded his senator to wipe out his $86,000 debt. Others, expelled for less egregious reasons, find themselves facing bills as high as $94,000.

In all the service academies, the obligation to repay the taxpayers begins in the junior year. Midshipmen and cadets who fail academic or physical fitness requirements but otherwise have clean records are generally separated without further obligation.

Junior and seniors who are separated but haven't committed misconduct -- using drugs, assault or other felonies -- usually can repay their education by enlisting for two or three years. Those who have been separated and are unfit for military service are asked for reimbursement. The academies also recommend tuition repayment from students close to graduation who are suspected of deliberately failing to forgo military duty.

The practice of having separated Mids and cadets repay by serving in the enlisted ranks makes sense. If that option isn't possible, repayment is warranted.

The various services, not their academies, handle tuition reimbursement. The Pentagon has been inconsistent in debt collection. Senators and congressmen have helped rescind tuition repayments on behalf of constituents. More consistent and equitable treatment for those who are separated from the academies will benefit them -- and taxpayers.

Pub Date: 3/03/99

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