WASHINGTON – The Military Spouse Career Advancement Accounts program will resume Oct. 25, but with some significant changes to the popular spouse employment program, a defense official announced July 20.
Changes include a reduction in the amount of financial aid, a change in the population eligible to receive that aid – from all military spouses to spouses of junior service members – and more robust counseling services.
These changes bring the program, commonly known as MyCAA, back to its original intent of equipping military spouses of junior service members with portable careers, such as in real estate or health care, said Clifford Stanley, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. The program was launched in November 2007 for spouses of junior service members and was expanded to all pay grades and programs of study in March 2009.
"We're trying to empower, to give spouses in particular, an opportunity to be immediately impactful as soon as they get into a community," Stanley said in an interview with the Pentagon Channel and American Forces Press Service. "We want to make sure they have opportunities to work when they get to a new duty station."
Officials temporarily halted the program Feb. 16, pending a top-to-bottom review, after an enrollment surge overwhelmed the system and caused the program to nearly reach its budget threshold. In March, with the review still under way, officials resumed the program for the more than 136,000 spouses who already had established an account.
The review took time, but officials wanted to ensure they could sustain the program for the long-term, particularly in light of fiscal realities the government is facing, Stanley said.
"We want to help people be employed, but at the same time we have to be cost-conscious," he said.
The aim is to sustain the program, he said. "We don't want to start it and stop it. This is something we want to continue because it's important to take care of our Families and our spouses."
The previous program offered all spouses of active-duty service members a lifetime benefit of $6,000 to be used for education purposes.
Under the new parameters, spouses of junior service members can apply for a maximum financial benefit of $4,000 for up to three years from the start date of the first class, with a $2,000 annual cap, Stanley explained. Spouses pursuing licenses or certifications requiring an up-front fee of greater than $2,000 may apply for a waiver of the annual cap up to the maximum benefit of $4,000, he added.
Financial aid will be limited to spouses of active-duty service members in pay grades E-1 to E-5, W1 to W-2 and O-1 to O-2, Stanley said, as well as the spouses of activated National Guard and Reserve members within those ranks. Spouses of National Guard and Reserve members must be able to start and complete their courses while their sponsor is on Title 10 orders, he added.
Those spouses eligible to receive aid can use the money to fund associate's degrees, licenses and certification programs, not higher degrees. The program was not intended to support bachelor's and master's degrees, Stanley said. However, he added, spouses pursuing higher degrees can explore a wealth of other education opportunities – such as scholarships, federal grants and the G.I. Bill – with help from Military OneSource consultants.
"The counseling piece is probably the most important, and pivotal, part of this program," he said.
Spouses currently enrolled in the program can continue their participation through Oct. 21, when MyCAA will ramp down and prepare for the Oct. 25 launch. As of Oct. 25, those spouses who fall within the eligible pay grades can continue their program participation. Spouses who no longer are eligible for financial aid still can participate by accessing career and education counseling services, Stanley said.
"There are still opportunities," he said. "This one program is just one small part of the overall equation of taking care of our Family Members. It's an important part, but it's a small part."
To fund the program, officials have budgeted about $210 million for 2010 with an increase to $250 million for 2011 due to an expected spike in enrollments, Stanley said. For future years, officials estimate a budget of about $190 million per year.
To ensure the vitality of the program, Military OneSource counselors will encourage spouses to explore other funding resources, including federal benefits.
Staffing levels have been increased to handle the anticipated call volume and enable more one-on-one counseling with spouses, Stanley said. Officials also will monitor the program much closer now to ensure they can maintain it, he added.
The program became "wildly popular" before, mainly through word of mouth, Stanley said. People heard about the program and immediately recognized it was a good deal.
"It's still a good deal," he said. "We always tend to look at the glass as half empty. We are doing the best we can with what we have – I wish we had a lot more money, but we don't – but this glass is still half full."
Spouses can learn more about MyCAA on Military OneSource at 1-800-342-9647 or by going to the Military OneSource web site.