The Scrutiny Spreads

A House panel questions the Pentagon's oversight of distance education -- particularly that offered by for-profit colleges -- for active duty service members.
September 23, 2010

WASHINGTON – As the U.S. Department of Education and a Senate committee push ahead with their scrutiny of for-profit higher education, the sector may also face greater oversight from the Pentagon in the months and years ahead, if a Wednesday examination by a House of Representatives panel is any evidence.

At a hearing billed as a discussion of how the Department of Defense keeps tabs on the “quality and value” of the postsecondary institutions at which active duty members can use military tuition assistance grants, members of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations made clear that they are concerned that distance learning programs -- especially those offered by for-profit colleges -- may not be the best use of federal funds.

In fiscal 2010, said Representative Vic Snyder (D-Ark.), the subcommittee’s chairman, the Defense Department and armed services have spent a combined $580 million on military tuition assistance programs. About 40 percent of that money went to for-profit colleges, which represented 30 percent of enrollments. “Although for-profit schools have become increasingly popular, the onus is on the department, services, and Congress to ensure the rigor of their programs,” Snyder said in his opening statement. “The bottom line is we must insist that all schools that accept tuition assistance funding offer a quality education and not just a degree.”

Though Snyder said the hearing was not aimed at “trying to solve … this whole issue of the for-profit versus not-for-profit schools,” he expressed concern that for-profit colleges serving military students were not getting sufficient scrutiny, whether from the Defense Department or other government agencies.

Snyder also suggested that members of Congress consider revising the 90-10 rule guiding the sources of for-profit colleges’ revenues. As it stands, no more than 90 percent of a for-profit higher education provider’s revenues may come from the Education Department’s Title IV federal financial aid program. The regulation is designed to ensure that colleges do not depend exclusively on federal money, and the goal is for other revenues to come from students willing to pay their own money for it.

But revenues over the 90 percent mark can come from military tuition assistance and the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Post-9/11 GI Bill, which offered veterans and their families $3.58 billion in aid in 2009. “It doesn’t make any sense to me why federal military assistance isn’t counted toward the 90 percent,” he said, echoing a concern voiced by many critics of for-profit colleges in recent months.

On Aug. 4, the same day as the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee’s most recent hearing on for-profit colleges, Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Jim Webb (D-Va.) wrote to the secretaries of defense and veterans affairs with their concerns that the sector “may be aggressively targeting service members and veterans, signing them up for educational programs that may bring little benefit to future employment opportunities, low graduation rates and high default rates,” they wrote.

At the hearing, Representative Walter Jones (R-N.C.) said he hoped to see greater oversight of where military tuition assistance funds were going. “We know the military deserves every opportunity the taxpayer can give him or her, especially the education,” he said. But “the taxpayer who’s picking up the bill is looking at this and saying, 'Is the soldier getting equal education if he or she can get education at a community college that offers courses for $50 [per credit] versus a for-profit university that is charging $250? … something’s not right.' ”

Jones questioned whether degrees coming from for-profit colleges were as valuable as those coming from nonprofit institutions, citing instances where employers have reported turning down substantial numbers of retired military applicants with credentials from for-profit institutions. “How do you keep the good and weed out the bad?” he said. “How can the taxpayer be assured that the military is getting a quality education and really not an education of being taken advantage of?”

Timothy R. Larsen, director of the Personal and Family Readiness Division of the U.S. Marine Corps’s Manpower and Reserve Affairs Department, said that much of the growth in for-profit colleges’ enrollment of military students was the result of the same kinds of aggressive recruiting tactics reported by civilian students. “Many times for-profit institutions would probably market themselves very well,” he said.

Though the Marine Corps requires service members to meet with academic counselors before signing up for courses and tuition assistance, “we don’t discriminate between any of the types [of institution], either for-profit, nonprofit or traditional institution.” He added: “As long as they’re accredited, we support Marines participating in those programs.”

Larsen’s Army, Navy and Air Force counterparts who testified at the hearing also echoed that reliance on accreditation, as did Robert L. Gordon, deputy under secretary of defense for military community and family policy. “We ensure, regardless of the type of institution, [that] they are accredited by the Department of Education,” he said, explaining the Pentagon’s oversight measures, in a not-quite-accurate statement since institutions are accredited by nongovernmental agencies approved by the Education Department. (And accreditors are facing their own questions.)

The Pentagon also contracts with the American Council on Education to maintain the Military Installation Voluntary Education Review (MIVER) Program, which offers third-party examinations of academic programs offered in-person on military bases. Under proposed regulations issued by the Department of Defense in August, that program would become the Military Voluntary Education Review (MVER), which would examine institutions offering courses at military installations, as well as “those institutions providing postsecondary instruction not located on the military installation and via distance learning.”

Gordon said he thinks the expanded review capacity provided by MVER will help to “ensure … quality education for our service members.”


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