Air Force Educational Leave of Absence Program

Air Force Revamps Bootstrap Program

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The Air Force Educational Leave of Absence Program allows Air Force members to attend college, full-time, for up to two years, in order to complete a degree program (bachelors, masters, Phd, etc.), while remaining on active duty. In exchange, the member agrees to extend their active duty commitment.

Per Air Force Policy letter 2002-09, dated July 2002, the Air Force replaced the former “Bootstrap” program with the Air Force Educational Leave of Absence.

The “Bootstrap” program was replaced because there were several details of this older program that were illegal under the US Code (Title 10, Sec 708). The new program, abbreviated as both AFELA and just ELA, allows for Air Force members to attend an accredited school full-time to obtain a degree of any level (including PhD). The next revision of Air Force Instruction AFI 36-2306, Air Force Education Programs, promises to outline this program in detail.

To qualify for the ELA, members can be either officer or enlisted. For enlisted members, they must have completed their initial enlistment and have reenlisted. For officers, they must have completed their initial period of obligated service incurred from their commissioning source. In each case, the member must also be retainable and agree to a “2 for 1” service commitment—for every 1 day of time on ELA, the commitment is 2 days, with this ELA commitment starting upon completion of the program.

To be on ELA, the member must be enrolled full-time as defined by the educational institution. Finally, the member does not need to have completed coursework in this degree program prior to starting ELA.

ELA is authorized for up to 2 calendar years, including term breaks. Because this program is new, your local education office may suggest ELA is authorized for just 1 year, since the old “Bootstrap” program was only authorized for this length.

However, ELA is indeed authorized for up to 2 years, per the policy letter and the US Code (Title 10, Sec 708). Your education office may require justification or a waiver to be signed in order to go beyond one year.

While on ELA, members continue to be active duty, retain all medical benefits, build time in rank, can be promoted, etc. However, members will receive their base pay only. No allowances are authorized. This means no BAH (Basic Allowance for Housing) or BAS (Basic Allowance for Subsistence). If living on base, the member will be charged rent during the time they are on ELA. However, certain incentive pays, including retention bonuses, are usually still allowed. (In general, if it is pay, and is therefore taxed, you still receive this while on ELA. Allowances, which are not taxed, are not authorized during ELA.)

Furthermore, the Air Force does not pay for any expenses incurred for attending school. So Tuition Assistance (TA) and moving expenses (if moving from your assigned base to attend school) are not authorized. It is, therefore, important for ELA candidates to consider whether TA or the opportunity to attend school full-time is more important for their situation.

Finally, while on ELA, members continue to accrue leave, at the usual rate of 2.5 days per month.

Members are not charged leave for term breaks. This is because the member is already being charged a 2x service commitment, and it would be illegal to charge a service commitment for time that is also being charged as leave.

The process for applying to an ELA starts with getting your supervisor’s consent. This should be done prior to applying for any program. If the member is currently working part-time on the degree, they should be sure to talk to their supervisor before committing to a course load that would require full-time participation. Next, go to your base education office, where they will guide you through the paperwork for ELA application. Final authority rests with the local commander level, but in most cases the paperwork will only need to be signed by your organization’s leadership.

Once on ELA, you’ll be considered still assigned to your organization, but on a permissive TDY.

For enlisted members, it is important to note that ELA is not a commissioning program. While enlisted can use this program to obtain the necessary Bachelor’s degree to become an officer, the application for Officer Training School (OTS) is a separate process.

The Air Force has rededicated itself to supporting education by offering the Educational Leave of Absence. ELA effectively allows Air Force members to take a sabbatical for up to two years to pursue a degree which need not be aligned with their Air Force career. If this program sounds right for you, stop by your base education office for details.

My friend Derek offers the following caution about ELA participation by commissioned officers:

A word of caution for Officers: Officer Performance Reports (OPR's) are due even while on ELA. (And according to Air Staff, ELA students are forbidden to receive training reports, even though AFIT students receive them.) OPR's are explicitly banned from referencing an officer's educational achievements (see AFI 36-2406 §3.7.29; note this doesn't apply to enlisted). Imagine this: An officer's annual OPR is due every Aug 1st. If that officer starts a 1 year ELA program on Aug 1st and finish the next year, their OPR for that year will then literally be blank. After all, they didn't work, and only went to school, and school activities are barred from the OPR. An officer on ELA for the maximum 2 years will be in an even worse situation-two blank OPR's. In short, contrary to logic, an officer may ruin their career potential by going on ELA. Officers that don't go on ELA will have stronger OPR's and this policy forces the educated officers out of the Air Force. Therefore, ELA may only be a good option for officers planning to separate early. This has been made known to the Air Staff at the Pentagon, but their response has been to ignore the issue.