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SAN FRANCISCO -- More and more colleges are seeking to enroll members of the military (and, increasingly, their spouses), viewing service members as an attractive pool of students who are eager to learn and able to pay, with significant financial support from the federal government.

But as hundreds of college administrators and military education officers gathered here this week at the annual meeting of the Council for College and Military Educators, officials on both sides of the equation emphasized in sometimes blunt terms that institutions cannot view military personnel as just another group of students.

“Military friendly” has to be "more than a slogan," given the unusual needs of members of the military, Robert Bothel, voluntary education chief for the U.S. Coast Guard, told a roomful of college administrators Wednesday. “Look at your Web pages, your policies, all your stuff. If you compared that to what Joe Blow off the street sees, and there’s no difference, how dare you call yourself ‘military friendly.’”

Bothel hastily added, and most other military officials at the meeting agreed, that the vast majority of institutions are working hard to be (and not just claiming to be) “military friendly.” But they also acknowledged that colleges had lots of reasons to woo servicemen and women -- $445 million of them, in fact.

That’s how much the various branches of the military spent on what they call “voluntary education” -- that pursued by soldiers, sailors and others on their own time -- in the 2006 fiscal year. Bothel said. That represented 840,000 enrollments, with 43,500 service members earning credentials from high school completions to Ph.D.'s.

“”There’s money out there to be made, and some schools are making a pretty good living off the military,” Bothel said.

The world of military education is one of those unusual and underexamined corners of higher education, and like many other pockets of the increasingly diverse postsecondary landscape, this one has its own jargon -- ESO’s (education service officers), ACE credits (American Council on Education-recognized credit for certain types of training), -- and its own complicated structure.

Some of the education is provided on military bases by colleges with contracts or “memorandums of understanding” between branches of the military or individual bases. But increasingly, the education is being offered online, with as much as 75 percent of the instruction offered that way in 2007 to soldiers and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan and Navy personnel aboard ships around the world. Service members who want “training assistance” funds, as the military education aid is called, most often work through the education officers in their units in choosing the providers, but they can also enroll directly in (and be marketed to by) individual colleges.

More than 900 people attended this week's CCME conference, up sharply from last year, and more than 75 institutions chose to exhibit there, dominated by institutions like the University of Maryland University College, Central Michigan University, Thomas Edison State College and Excelsior College that have served the military for many years. Most of the colleges at the San Francisco meeting are members of Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges, a group that requires its 1,800 member colleges to fulfill certain criteria and standards, a Good Housekeeping seal of approval of sorts.

The growth of distance education to serve the military is logical, given the farflung nature of today's armed forces and the ever-improving technology, but military leaders expressed some concerns about the trend, even as they acknowledged its inevitability.

Ileen F. Rogers, director of education for the Army, cited a mix of practical and philosophical reservations. She noted the disruption that occurred this month when several severed undersea cables limited Internet access in the Middle East and Asia. "This caused a great deal of anxiety and worry over connectivity, about soldiers being unable to do their coursework online because somebody cut a cable," said Rogers.

But more fundamentally, she described herself as an "old fogey" because "I still think it's romantic to be in a classroom.... I like that kind of stuff, and I kind of hate to see that disappear."

Rogers's counterpart for the Navy, Ann Hunter, voluntary education service chief and enlisted education program manager for the Chief of Naval Operations, Training and Education, presented statistics in her presentation to the group Thursday showing that the Navy spent more money for fewer courses for fewer sailors in fiscal 2007 compared to 2006. "I'm not being critical, I'm just simply saying, from the Navy perspective, and from a business perspective, we're not getting as much benefit from our money as in the past." (According to Carolyn Baker, the Pentagon's deputy under secretary for military community and family policy, the Navy and Air Force saw drops in the number of servicemembers taking college courses, while the Army and Coast Guard saw sizable increases.)

Distance education courses cost the service $80 more per credit hour on average than in-class courses, Hunter said, and to her dismay, sailors were twice as likely to fail or withdraw from online courses. The Navy plans further study about why, she said, because "if we're going to spend more money for distance learning, we want to make sure we're getting the biggest bang for our buck."

Given the pounding that college officials are taking from politicians and families about their prices, it probably was not surprising that it was a common theme from military officers as well. Hunter pointed out that Navy policy calls for books and fees unrelated to a specific course not to be covered by the service's training assistance funds. But she said the service is increasingly finding that books and certain fees are included -- "and I don't want to use the word 'masked' -- in some colleges' tuitions. "There have been some creative ways of getting around our policies," she said.

Such policies are certainly not "military friendly," Bothel said in his Wednesday presentation about how colleges should treat servicemen and women. "We still have members paying a parking fee, and they're sitting on a cutter taking a class. And we don't need your health fee -- the military has the best health care around."

Bothel warned at the start of his talk that he wouldn't offer a "list of bullets" for colleges interested in enticing military personnel to their campuses, but in fact he wound up providing a slew of do's and don'ts drawn from working with the 991 colleges to which he said the Coast Guard delivered some of its tuition assistance in 2006.

Among them:

  • Be direct. "Military people are very direct, and they want direct answers. Have someone answer the phone when they call. And when I search on your Web site, I should be able to find out how much you cost. If I can't, if it's a big secret, I don't want you to enroll any of my students."
  • Don't mislead. He recounted an advertisement he saw from a college that promised "free education" to military students. It turned out that the college charged under the $250 per credit that the Coast Guard covers, and therefore it was going to cost the student nothing out of pocket. "That doesn't make it free," he scolded.
  • Don't make students commit to long-term arrangements. "They can't predict where they are going to be six months from now," and if a college requires a student to commit to finish a program at the institution, "the student isn't in a reliable position to be able to make that commitment."
  • Extend military discounts to spouses. "Military spouses are some of the poorest people in the world," Bothel said. "Some of you have taken the initiative to charge less to military spouses than to the military themselves. Now that's military friendly."

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