Zachary Merisotis enlisted in U.S. Army Reserves a couple of years ago, feeling certain his military benefits would help him pay for college.

"A lot of guys join the military to go to school," he said.

But finishing his mechanical engineering degree at Penn State York will be a greater challenge now that the Army has cut its tuition assistance.

Starting Friday, funding for the Tuition Assistance program -- which started in 1972 as part of the National Defense Authorization Act -- was cut because of budget challenges caused by the sequester, said Army spokesman Troy Rolan.

The tuition assistance helped active duty soldiers and Army reservists earn an education to advance their military careers and transition to civilian life, he said.

The automatic spending cuts that went into effect this month are slashing $500 billion from the Department of Defense budget.

As a result, the Army, Marine Corps and Air Force cut tuition assistance indefinitely, and the Navy is considering

following suit, according to the Pentagon.

Options: Merisotis, a 20-year-old Dallastown resident, serves as a specialist in the Army Reserves. He said he first learned of the cuts by reading posts from his buddies online and not through the DOD or his university.

With two years to go before he earns his degree, Merisotis said he's been forced to change his life so he can finish school.

Because he's not on active duty, he would only qualify for $300 a month through the GI Bill, he said.

"That's definitely not enough to cover my classes, books, housing and food," Merisotis said.

To afford school, he will attend Penn State on a part-time basis, work as a supervisor at Fed-Ex and absorb about $22,000 in school loans, he said.

More concerns: Staff Sgt. Rob Beck said he's in a similar, though somewhat better situation.

Beck, a 29-year-old Etters resident, has served in the Army for 12 years and was deployed to Iraq during the war. Because of his years of service, he qualifies for the student loan repayment program.

The student loan repayment program refunds Army servicemen and women $10,000 to $30,000 of the money they spent on student loans, he said.

Army members may also qualify for the GI Bill, but it all depends upon what was contractually agreed to at the time of enlistment.

"If someone gets $300 a month from a GI Bill, that barely covers a book," Beck said.

He will use the student loan repayment program to complete his final eight-week semester, studying business management through Grantham University, an online school.

"I'll be OK, but I need to know what to tell the 15 soldiers under me. At least 10 of them were planning to use tuition assistance next semester," Beck said.

OK for now: Most students are fully funded for the current semester, but they'll need a new option for the fall semester, said Debra Shimmel, director of records at York College.

The college has 131 students using the GI Bill and four students relying on tuition assistance this semester. Last semester, six students utilized tuition assistance, she said.

Penn State York has a much larger military contingent using tuition assistance, but a spokeswoman couldn't confirm the exact number.

"The Army and Marines' suspension of new requests for the tuition assistance program certainly will affect current and prospective Penn State students, including many at our World Campus," university spokeswoman Jill Shockey said.

Harrisburg Area Community College has a large military enrollment and serves the enlisted students through its Military and Veterans Affairs Office.

HACC and Penn State lead the commonwealth in enrolled veterans, according to David Satterlee, dean of student affairs at HACC York.

Throughout all HACC locations, 900 veterans are enrolled in classes, he said.

A contact at HACC York's Military and Veterans Affairs Office could not be reached for further comment.

"The cuts are going to affect a lot of people," Beck said. "Education benefits were our biggest recruiting tool."

Who is affected by the cuts?

Following a directive from the Pentagon, the Army, Marine Corps and Air Force have indefinitely suspended their tuition assistance programs.

The assistance provided active military with up to $4,500 a year for college and other educational degree programs. Students already approved for the funding will still receive tuition assistance, but no further assistance was given as of March 8.

Cuts to the program affect all soldiers, Marines and Air Force members, including reservists and the National Guard.

The suspension does not affect those receiving assistance through the GI Bill, student loan repayment program or ROTC scholarships.

Assistance received through those programs varies by individual contract terms, and length and type of service.

Local lawmakers weigh in:

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa.:

"Allowing these indiscriminate cuts to cause problems for communities across the state is inexcusable when there is an alternative. Republicans and Democrats should come together on a balanced approach to the sequester that cuts the deficit while maintaining key investments in jobs and protecting our service members."

U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-Dillsburg:

"It's unacceptable that these education benefits are being eliminated," he said.

Perry, who is a colonel in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, is meeting with an Army liaison Thursday to discuss the cuts, among other issues.

"I want to know if these cuts are absolutely necessary or if there could be cuts from somewhere else. We're wondering why these were the first cuts," he said. "We need to honor the agreements we made to those who enlisted."

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa.:

"I support tuition assistance for our service members and am disappointed that the administration is making these cuts. As someone who voted against the Budget Control Act and its unnecessarily harsh spending reductions for our military, I believe that the federal government can make more sensible cuts in spending to reduce the deficit," he said.

Toomey co-authored legislation last week that would have given the administration greater latitude over the cuts, but it was defeated by Senate Democrats.

"There are innumerable opportunities for savings to the federal budget including unneeded projects, duplicative missions, waste and fraud. We spend $8 billion a year for federal employees to go to conferences and trips. ... I believe that this administration can and should find smarter spending cuts instead of taking away tuition assistance from those who protect our country," he said.

-- Candy Woodall can also be reached at cwoodall@yorkdispatch.com.