Senior Airman Mtchel Cochran

Senior Airman Mitchel Cochran, a knowledge operations manager with the Missouri Air National Guard, is also an undergraduate student at the University of Missouri-Columbia, in Columbia, Missouri. (U.S. Air National Guard photo illustration by 1st Lt. Phil Fountain)

Missouri allows Guard Airman to avoid student loans, dream big
By 1st Lt. Phil Fountain, Missouri National Guard Public Affairs

JEFFERSON CITY, Missouri – At a time when America’s youth are increasingly concerned with student loan debt, tuition assistance is consistently ranked as a top reason many join the Missouri Air National Guard.

The opportunity to earn a bachelor’s degree at little or no direct financial cost draws many to military service, said Senior Master Sgt. Jorge Gonzalez, the Missouri Air National Guard’s recruiting superintendent.

“No doubt, education benefits are a top reason we hear people want to join the Guard,” Gonzalez said. “Certainly, community service is a factor, but the education benefits that accompany service is something we’re consistently asked about when we visit with potential recruits and families.”

Since 1998, the state of Missouri has invested millions in its National Guard Soldiers and Airmen through the State Tuition Assistance (TA) program. The program has allowed thousands of Missouri Guardsmen to pursue their higher education goals while limiting or avoiding college debt.

The Missouri Air National Guard recently closed the books on fall applications and expects to grant hundreds of awards. In addition to the investment made toward making individual Guardsmen competitive in the modern workforce, the program has provided a direct reinvestment in colleges and universities across the state.

“An Airman becomes eligible for TA upon enlistment,” Gonzalez said. “Currently, they can receive up to $10,998 per year or 39 credit hours. This is big, since there’s no federal TA for Air Guardsmen.”

According to a recent report by the Institute for College Access and Success, 57 percent of Missouri undergraduate students complete college with student loan debt, averaging $27,532 each. State TA allows Missouri Guardsmen to attend in-state colleges and universities at little or no direct cost through their first bachelor’s degree.

“We have hundreds of Airmen participating in the state tuition assistance program, nearly 600 applications are projected to be received by the end of the fiscal year (2018),” said Col. Grace Link, the Missouri Air National Guard’s director of staff. “Higher education is an important component for career development in the military. We require our top senior NCOs (noncommissioned officers) to have an associate’s degree, and a bachelor’s degree is required for those seeking to become commissioned officers.”

According to the Air Force Personnel Center, 8.6 percent of the Regular Air Force’s enlisted Airmen have earned a bachelor’s degree. Similarly, at least 10.3 percent of the Missouri Air National Guard’s enlisted force is documented to have the same level of education. Anecdotally, this percentage thought to be low for Guard Airmen, as each service member has to proactively self-report his or her education and many do not typically do so until it is required for career advancement.

For at least one junior Airman seeking higher education, debt avoidance is also a top priority.

Senior Airman Mitchel Cochran of Buckner, Missouri, a knowledge operations manager, said he earned a partial scholarship to a private, out-of-state college, but chose to stay in Missouri specifically because of the state’s TA program. He is currently an undergraduate finance major at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

“The only reason I joined when I did was for the education benefits,” Cochran said. “I’m proud to serve, and more attachment has come over time, but my initial questions were about the tuition benefits. Now, with college credits from basic training and tech school, I’m on-track to graduate in December 2018, in three-and-a-half years.”

Cochran’s active duty counterpart would likely be eligible for the federal Air Force TA program, which currently covers 100 percent of tuition, up to 16 credit hours annually – $250 per semester hour, $166.67 per quarter hour, and $4,500 per fiscal year. Additionally, active duty Airmen may also become eligible for a robust Montgomery G.I. Bill package, a benefit not provided to typical Guard Airmen.

Cochran said he had encouragement from his family to earn his degree, but also was not eligible for federal financial aid, a situation many young Missourians face.

“I come from a blue-collar family,” Cochran said. “Eventually, I would like to get into portfolio management or investment management. Avoiding debt has been important.”

In addition to his civilian goals, Cochran said he looks forward to continue his military career, with the goal of becoming a commissioned officer and pilot.

“I’m going to take a private orientation flight next month,” Cochran said. “If it looks like something I want to do, I’ll begin taking flight lessons to prepare for the pilot selection boards next year. Either way, I want to get my private pilot license.”

He attributes his growing confidence to his ability to graduate without the burden of student loans.

“Graduating debt-free means not being weighted down or limited in your dreams,” Cochran said. “It puts you in a position a lot of other people can’t be in. I’ve read, two out of 9 students don’t have a job lined-up when they graduate. If I was $80,000 in debt, I wouldn’t be thinking about going to flight school.”

Confident and knowledgeable Airmen are a key to the Missouri Air National Guard’s future success.

“We’re proud of our Airmen and the skills they bring to the table,” Link said. “They’re patriotic and disciplined, and with higher education, continue to add value to our organization and state.”