Monday, February 02, 2015

Remember that Military Education Crisis?

It was one of the hottest topics in higher ed less than three years ago.  Amid reports that military members and veterans were being "victimized" by colleges targeting the armed forces market, President Obama signed an executive order to "protect" those students from predatory institutions.  According to Mr. Obama and his education team, a handful of colleges and universities were fleecing military students, collecting billions in federal financial aid, while providing degrees and credentials that were of dubious quality.  

Here's an excerpt from an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (April 27, 2012), which echoed White House talking points about a "crisis" in military education:

"President Obama will issue an executive order today that is designed to protect veterans, service members, and their families from deceptive marketing practices by educational institutions that target them for their federal education benefits, the White House announced."


"The order mandates that more information be made available for veterans and service members, and that the government take steps to stop deceptive marketing and recruiting practices by institutions that are eligible to receive military education benefits."


"Fraudulent and aggressive practices by institutions that target veterans and service members have increasingly caught the attention of lawmakers. Though the administration says it is not singling out one group of colleges, for-profit colleges enroll far greater proportions of military and veteran students than do nonprofit institutions, and tend to be among the largest recipients of military education benefits. Of the $4.4-billion in Post-9/11 GI Bill dollars paid to colleges and universities from 2009 to 2011, more than one-third, about $1.65-billion, went to for-profit colleges, according to a report released last fall by a U.S. Senate committee."

Among its various provisions, Mr. Obama's regulatory scheme required institutions receiving military-related financial aid (tuition assistance and GI Bill payments) to sign and comply with a new, DoD-mandated Memorandum of Understanding, which banned the deceptive practices that were supposedly rampant in voluntary education programs serving the armed forces.

The new rules also require institutions to collect a wide range of data, covering everything from graduation rates to the average debt load acquired by students studying at that college, university, or trade school.  Institutions failing to meet prescribed metrics--or found guilty of using false or deceptive practices--faced the potential loss of federal financial aid.

To make it easier to identify predatory schools, DoD, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the federal Department of Education created formal complaint systems, complete with websites where military members, veterans and dependents could register their grievances.  Apparently, the federal agencies didn't spend as much on the complaint portals as the Obamacare website, but the on-line tools were more proof of the crisis in military voluntary education.

Given the hysteria of 2012, you'd assume the grievance system would be flooded with complaints from angry students, victimized by greedy schools trolling the armed services market.  And, with most of the same institutions still actively recruiting military students--and new reforms just taking hold--the number of complaints must number in the thousands, if not the tens of thousands, based on what Mr. Obama told us less than three years ago.

But the actual numbers paint a much different picture.  The DoD website that handles education program complaints went live just over a year ago (January 2014); last week, the Defense Department's Chief of Voluntary Education Programs, Dawn Bilodeau, offered a brief update at the Council of Colleges of Military Educators (CCME) Symposium in Anaheim.  Between January and September of last year, she reported, the complaint website attracted over 9,000 "unique visitors," who filed a total of 223 complaints.  Ninety-three percent of those grievances have already been resolved and not a single institution has been sanctioned for ripping off military students.

In other words, the DoD portion of the complaint system averages about 24 "non-compliance" reports a month.  Most, according to Ms. Bilodeau, are the usual stuff of higher education; queries about financial aid, refunds or collection notices, and requests for the release of transcripts.  There were also a few complaints about the quality of higher education programs, but those apparently represented a small portion of a very meager total.  Ms. Bilodeau also told the Anaheim gathering that the DoD portal received 36 additional complaints between October and December last year, suggesting that overall volume is actually slipping.  

Supporters of the Obama program might claim that tougher regulations are forcing schools to do a better job of serving military students.  There might be an element of truth in that, but it's also true that the same schools recruiting armed forces students and veterans in 2012 are active in the marketplace today.  If those institutions were doing a poor job--as purported by the administration--you'd expect the DoD complaint system would be jammed.

Instead, the almost-dormant complaint network suggests that most military-affiliated students are satisfied with their educational experience.  In fact, the number of complaints reported by Ms. Bilodeau represents far less than one percent of the military students who utilized the tuition assistance (TA) program last year.  For the record, well over 200,000 service members used their TA benefits in Fiscal Year 2014, including many enrolled at so-called predatory schools.  Overall, the Defense Department spends more than $400 million a year on the TA program; outlays for the GI Bill total $15 billion.

Why all the fuss?  To be fair, there have been some bad actors in military vol ed, and those institutions deserve scrutiny and punishment (as required).  But the exceptionally low number of complaints affirm what many have known for decades: military voluntary education programs have been a rousing success, allowing thousands of service members to pursue their degrees while on active duty, or after leaving the ranks.  There was no need for new layers of bureaucracy and regulation; indeed, the new metrics that will measure school performance in the future have nothing to do with educational quality.  That's rather odd, since concerns about "fly-by-night diploma mills," churning out "useless degrees" drove recent efforts to reform military education.

In the words of Rahm Emanuel, never let a crisis go to waste.  Even when it's manufactured.
ADDENDUM: There's no word on how much DoD has spent on the education complaint system.  But with barely 1,000 unique visitors per month for the website, the cost per click must be stratospheric.  Then again, we're guessing the feds aren't exactly concerned about another wasteful website.          


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