President Obama and the First Lady staged an expensive photo op Friday at Fort Stewart, Georgia, home of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division. While Mr. Obama and his wife made passing references to the unit's remarkable combat record (and such pressing concerns as civilian employment prospects for soldiers leaving the service), the real reason behind the Fort Stewart visit was the public signing of an executive order protecting the troops from "predatory" colleges and universities.
Forget about the expense of flying to Georgia on Air Force One. And the cost of helicoptering from Hunter Army Airfield to the sprawling Army post. Or the extra security associated with a presidential visit. As we watched the signing ceremony unfold, a lot of us in higher education were left scratching our heads (DISCLOSURE: your humble correspondent is an executive for a private, non-profit college with a significant presence in the military market).
Mr. Obama told the crowd at Fort Stewart that the executive order is urgently needed to safeguard active duty service members (and veterans) from the for-profit institutions of higher learning that are preying upon them. The Commander-in-Chief even told horror stories about school recruiters who enrolled Marines assigned to a Wounded Warrior Battalion at Camp Lejeune. Many of the Marines had suffered traumatic brain injuries in combat and didn't remember what they signed up for after the recruiter left.
But is the problem as serious as the President would have us believe? Not surprisingly, the stenographers in the MSM quickly picked up the "crisis" theme. Here's a sample account from Air Force Times
“Sometimes you are dealing with folks who are not interested in you,” he said. “They are interested in the money.”
An example, he said, was a school recruiter who gained access to a Marine Corps barracks where he signed up brain-injured Marines to attend college.
“They try to swindle and hoodwink you,” he said “We are going to put an end to it.”
Obama’s order requires schools receiving the GI Bill or other Defense Department-funded veterans educational benefits or tuition assistance to disclose more information to students using military tuition assistance, including a breakdown of the percentage of service members and veterans who complete courses or degrees, according to White House officials.
Course completion information and graduate rates are already available for most schools, but they are not broken down by how service members or veterans might fare, White House officials said.
So, how does President Obama plan to remedy the crisis? With more regulation, of course; here are a few of the requirements mandated by the executive order. And just for kicks and grins, I decided to see how my school stands up to these guidelines, as indicated by the responses in bold type:
- Schools that receive GI Bill or tuition assistance will be required to have academic and financial counselors for service members and veterans and to ease policies for enrollment, re-enrollment and refunds if military-related duties interfere with classes (We've had dedicated financial aid and academic counselors for military students for years; ditto for streamlined policies regarding enrollment, re-enrollment and tuition refunds. In fact, a student at my university can withdrawal from class for a deployment or extended TDY with just a phone call).
- The government will attempt to trademark the term “GI Bill” so unscrupulous institutions will be prevented from using the name in advertising and on websites (Good luck with that one; might as well trademark "U.S. Constitution," "Declaration of Independence" and "Bill of Rights" while you're at it. But seriously folks, how are schools supposed to let prospective students know they participate in the program? I can just see brochures from schools notifying individuals they take part in "that financial program for individuals who served in the military, but it's not Tuition Assistance;" nod, nod, wink, wink). .
- Schools with overly aggressive or unscrupulous recruiting practices will be barred from military bases, blocking access to prospective students (We coordinate all of our recruiting visits through the base education officer, IAW existing DoD policies and regulations).
- A centralized complaint system will be created, with access to investigators, prosecutors and policymakers who enforce the law and regulations (Fair enough, but who is going to enforce the rules? The VA? DoD? The individual branches of the armed forces? The Education Department? State departments of veterans affairs and/or education? Sadly, we can see all of these agencies getting involved, creating a labyrinth that will actually discourage some schools from participating in the military market). .
- Schools that fully comply with federal rules will be listed on a federal website, such as the Veterans Affairs Department’s GI Bill website, while schools that don’t comply will be excluded from listings (Will that be any more beneficial than being listed as a member of the various Servicemember Opportunity Colleges, or such associations as eArmyU, the Air Force AU-ABC Cooperative, and the Navy College Program Distance Learning Partnership? Such listings have long been used by military students looking for schools that will serve their interests.
And did we mention there is already a sizable bureaucracy that is supposed to assist service members and veterans in their educational pursuits? For active duty personnel (along with members of the National Guard and Reserve), there is a network of career counselors, educational advisers and base education officers to offer advice, and--supposedly--regulate access by college recruiters. For students who don't want to use these services, all branches of the military have education websites, and some (notably the Navy and National Guard) have "virtual" education centers. Troops with a question about their benefits, developing a degree plan or selecting a school can contact these centers from around the world.
To be fair, there are some bad actors in the field of higher education, and some of them represent for-profit colleges and universities. One school is known for allowing active duty military members, veterans and dependents sign up for classes even if their financial aid hasn't been approved. In some cases, the student completes three or four semesters before receiving a letter announcing their financial aid was rejected, along with an invoice for thousands of dollars in unpaid tuition and fees.
Another unsavory institution is notorious for leaving military students to fend for themselves once enrolled. In one case, a veteran recovering from a brain injury and PTSD signed up for an on-line photography course. Struggling with class assignments, the former soldier found it impossible to contact the instructor, or get help from someone else at the school. Finally, in frustration, he put a fist through the wall of his home and called the VA.
Clearly, such practices should end, along with deceptive advertising and marketing programs. But it's also worth remembering that the for-profits aren't the only ones who treat military students unfairly. In fact, Mr. Obama's executive order has at least one glaring weakness: it fairs to address admission and academic credit policies that discriminate against active duty personnel and veterans. It's also worth mentioning that many of the schools that engage in such practices are major state universities and exclusive private schools. Many of them don't extend tuition discounts to military students and won't grant credit for armed services training and education.
Here's a case in point: two years ago, a Navy Petty Officer First Class (E-6) was medically retired from service. During his 12-year career, the petty officer served as a nuclear reactor technician and an intelligence specialist, completing two of the longest--and most demanding--technical schools in the military. According to the American Council on Education (ACE) guide on transfer credit, those tech schools (along with other training courses) should have been worth dozens of hours in academic credit, in subjects ranging from mathematics and physics, to management and geography.
Unfortunately, the former petty officer decided to enroll at the University of Missouri's main campus in Columbia. After being accepted as a student, he was shocked to learn that Mizzou wouldn't grant any credit for his military training and education. At the age of 33 (and with four children at home), the ex-sailor began his career with no college credits, and began taking freshmen-level classes with students almost half his age.
Such policies don't strike me as "military-friendly," yet they are repeated time and time again among the nation's "better" schools. Indeed, one reason that so many armed forces students have migrated to the for-profits is that state universities and high-profile private schools ignored them for decades, or created barriers that made it difficult, if not impossible, for service members and vets to attend their classes, let alone earn a degree. Others refuse to make even basic concessions to military members, such as granting in-state tuition rates, or making more of their programs available on-line. Did we mention that 75% of all military tuition assistance requests last year went to on-line schools?
Against that backdrop, it will be interesting to see how Mr. Obama and the federal government enforce this new executive order. One provision calls for establishment of new rules governing access to military installations by college recruiters, ostensibly to prevent future episodes like the one at Camp Lejeune. But it's also easy to envision the new guidelines being used to favor schools that are now playing catch-up in the military market--the very same state universities and private schools that shunned armed forces students for so long.
Finally, it would be useful for the feds to quantify this problem before the executive order is actually implemented. In our experience, military students--particularly career NCOs and officers--are savvy education consumers. Most know what to look for in a school, and they shy away from colleges and universities with shady reputations, or those that don't offer what they're looking for. Most of them will tell you they don't need protection from unscrupulous schools; what they need is more affordable tuition; a streamlined admissions process, greater savings on books and educational materials and more credit for their armed forces training and experience. Implementing those reforms would go a long way towards solving the "real" crisis in military education and experience.