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Online learning enrollments continue growing at double-digit rates each year. But for one sector of students -- a sector seen as a particularly good demographic for distance learning -- demand for it could be curbed by a new federal law, the new Post-9/11 GI Bill.

Under the new GI Bill, which goes into effect in August, veterans who study entirely online will be eligible for generous tuition and book benefits. But they will be ineligible for a third benefit of the bill -- a housing allowance that’s available to their peers attending brick and mortar institutions more than half-time. The amount of the housing allowance varies by location, but, on average, is valued at $1,250 per month.

While lawmakers originally distinguished between online and in-person learners because of practical considerations -- specifically, how to allocate housing allowances to veterans living far from their campuses -- many point to inherent value judgments within the new GI Bill that favor a traditional, even transformative, college experience.

The proposed regulations for implementing the GI Bill do define distance learner narrowly -- in order to be eligible for a housing allowance, veterans could take a mix of online and in-person courses, so long as they take at least one course in-residence. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs does not track enrollment by mode of delivery. But many of the colleges that attract the largest numbers of veterans have large online operations, or, in some cases, are entirely online institutions. The top 10 colleges for GI Bill recipients, according to 2008 VA data, are, in order, the University of Phoenix, American InterContinental and American Public Universities, University of Maryland, Central Texas College, Colorado Technical, Kaplan, Strayer, and Grantham Universities, and Florida Community College.

“Obviously, we’re not too pleased with it,” says Michael J. Offerman, vice chairman of Capella University, an online-only, for-profit institution that’s number 16 on that list.

“It’s reasonable to think that as we go forward, people who would have, again with an even playing field, chosen to have come to an institution that’s fully online, would not do so in the future -- if the financial incentives tell them not to do that.”

“When you read about the Post-9/11 GI Bill, you read about all the positive aspects of it,” says Jim Sweizer, vice president of military programs for American Public University System, an online-only, for-profit institution. “It’s nothing but good press. You don’t see a headline, ‘Online learners will not receive housing stipend.’ It’s all about the good things about it, and rightfully so. It’s a great piece of legislation, and it does in fact raise the bar tremendously in terms of giving the service member the opportunity to attend a high-cost school without any out-of pocket expenses. And that’s the vision.

“Whether or not the vision of the GI Bill, of veterans going to schools on campuses materializes, I don’t know,” says Sweizer, who formerly was chief of the education program for the U.S. Air Force. Regardless, he says, learners who study entirely online shouldn't be penalized.

“Unfortunately, when you’re a 100 percent online school and you’re fighting for benefits for online learners, it looks like you have your self-interest at heart. And that’s part of it. But with my background in the Air Force ... and dedicating my life to advancing the educational opportunities and aspirations of these young men and women, I’m for equity.”

Probing into Policy

In describing the Post-9/11 GI Bill, signed into law last summer, those interviewed for this article use the word “romantic” repeatedly. Behind the bill, it seems, was an ideal -- that veterans would move into dormitories and attend college full time, even at the nation's most elite and expensive institutions. There is a sense that by offering such generous benefits -- tuition is covered up to the cost of the most expensive public college in a state, and there's also a government matching program through which private colleges can help make up the difference -- this latest GI Bill could increase access and open up new opportunities.

Those interviewed also describe practical limitations.

“A lot of our veterans are taking these distance learning classes because they have jobs, they have kids, they have all these other responsibilities,” says John Powers, executive director of Student Veterans of America and a graduate student at Rhode Island College. Yet, Powers says, while for some veterans the new GI Bill “limits their opportunities a little bit per se," other veterans "are going to reap the full benefits of this.”

The differentiation between online and in-residence learners was not in the original version of Virginia Sen. Jim Webb's Post-9/11 GI Bill, but was added during the legislative process at others' requests, Congressional aides say.

“The living stipend for online universities was excluded from the final GI Bill at the request of colleagues and interested stakeholders to avoid fraud and to ensure that good use was being made of taxpayer dollars. The new program does acknowledge the growing demand for online learning, and robust tuition benefits are available for these programs through the new GI Bill," says Kimberly Hunter, a spokeswoman for Webb. (In addition to being eligible for the expanded tuition and book benefits under the new, Post-9/11 GI Bill, online learners who originally enrolled in the older Montgomery GI Bill can stick with that program, which currently pays a flat, total monthly benefit of $1,321 per month.)

Under the Post 9-11 GI Bill, the differential benefit rates for students attending courses online versus in-person was originally born out of an administrative matter. Under the new GI Bill, the size of the veteran’s housing allowance varies based on the address of the institution -- which doesn’t work if a veteran is living in North Dakota, taking online courses from a university based in, say, San Francisco (where the cost of living, of course, is much higher).

“When the legislation was being put together, the question was, ‘How do you determine what the appropriate living allowance would be?’ If you place the living allowance based on the residence of the veteran, that means that the VA would have to verify 500,000 addresses,” says Patrick Campbell, chief legislative counsel for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. (A legislative staffer speaking on background of the decision-making process also cites the question of how to define the housing allowance as a crucial consideration, as well as concerns about possible abuses.)

“The reason why there was any distinction between distance learning and non-distance learning in the beginning was because there was an administrative issue of, ‘How do you identify the residence of the veteran?' ” Campbell continues. “That said, what it became was what I believe was an erroneous belief that people enrolled in distance learning already have full-time jobs…. It was a belief that these students are working anyway, so therefore they don’t deserve the housing allowance.”

Says Campbell, who would like to see the housing allowance extended to all-distance learners, “I’ve never heard this said, but I think ... underlying all this ... is ... a belief that if someone’s full-time distance learning, they’re not working as hard as in brick and mortar. If you believe someone can be working full time and going to school full time, underlying that belief is distance learning isn’t as hard and therefore we don’t need to give them as much money.”

Online Learning and Outcomes

Sweizer, of American Public University System, points out that many veterans who take online courses started distance education programs while on active duty. They're "being subsidized by the government without regard to method of delivery -- why wouldn't you allow them to continue in the same fashion and give them the same benefits that would be due a traditional student?" he asks.

The military has been probing research questions relating to method of delivery, however.

At last year’s Council of College and Military Educators conference, Ann Hunter, the Navy's voluntary education chief, presented on differential outcomes for current service members enrolled in distance learning versus in-person courses. Hunter declined to be interviewed for this article, saying that she would be presenting official results this summer and to comment prior to that would be inappropriate.

However, in her presentation at last February’s conference, she said that while distance learning classes cost the military an average of $80 extra per credit, compared to in-person courses, sailors were twice as likely to fail or withdraw from online courses. The Navy planned to further study the issue. Hunter said at the time, “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.”

Jeff Seaman, survey director for the Sloan Consortium, which tracks online learning trends, says that tracking retention and outcomes for online versus in-person students is particularly tricky. "You don't necessarily have comparable students in the two," he says. What he has found is, "For both the on-ground and the online student, when you look at, 'Why didn't you complete the course?' the reason was overwhelmingly nothing to do with course-related [elements]. It was, 'I had a family emergency, I had to change jobs, I got laid off, my sister got sick,' those kinds of things. And really what you ended up measuring was the frequency with which you had external factors affecting students much more than you were measuring anything about the specific course delivery or mechanism."

He points out, too, that students typically cite access and convenience as top reasons for choosing online courses, with financial considerations further down the list. At some colleges, it's cheaper to take classes online; at others, the online option is more expensive. "Even the ones that charge more, they're not suffering from enrollment, and those that charge less aren't seeing huge increases in their enrollment compared to others. Which makes me think small changes in economics are not going to make radical changes in behavior."

However, the new GI Bill housing allowance is worth between $730 and $2,650 monthly, depending on location -- so it's not chump change. "Whenever you've got something that you have a specific financial benefit that goes in one direction or the other, there's got to be someone that's price-sensitive to that," says Seaman.

To Be Determined...

In interviews, officials at colleges with heavy veteran populations didn't forecast significant changes in how they do business, as far as serving veterans goes.

"I think there's probably going to be an offset," says Randy Plunkett, national director of military affairs at DeVry University, which is split between online and on-campus enrollments. "For example, if we have a significant population of online [students] where we don't have a campus, let's say Louisiana, we may lose some online students there. But Florida, where we've got a campus in Orlando, we've got a campus in Miami, we've got a campus in Jacksonville, I think we'll see an increase in veterans who use that option."

"This is in a state of flux," says John F. Jones, vice president for Department of Defense Relations at University of Maryland University College, which has online and on-campus options. "So I think a number of institutions are watching it pretty closely, and not commenting on it yet."

Several reported that many students are unaware of the details of the bill and its benefits at this point.

Harris N. Miller, CEO and president of the Career College Association, which represents many of the for-profit colleges with heavy veteran populations, says that the group does not plan to lobby for the extension of housing benefits to all-online learners -- unless student veterans start asking for that on their own. "Rather than being out there advocating for the schools, I think our role here would be to advocate for the students. If they're OK with it, I don't think we're going to be up there trying to get things changed."

Miller adds, too, that the expanded benefits could increase demand for more expensive programs even within the career colleges -- in the arts, culinary studies, or nursing, for instance.

"Some veterans who I know thought the existing benefits were so de minimis that they don't even see them as a serious supplement to get them into higher education. Under the new GI Bill, they will."

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