A Softened Critique

To win Republican senators' support, letter opposing new Defense Department policies on tuition assistance was changed to eliminate references to for-profit colleges as "subpar" institutions.

December 12, 2011

WASHINGTON -- Senators from both parties have joined the push to get the Defense Department to reconsider its memorandum of understanding for tuition assistance for service members, which many colleges said overstepped the department’s authority by interfering with institutional policies on transfer credit and other issues.

More than 50 senators have now signed a letter to the Defense Department asking for a delay in the implementation of the memorandum of understanding. College officials believe that changing the agreement is key because the rules, if put in place by the Pentagon, could set a precedent for other departments -- including Veterans Affairs -- or for federal oversight of higher education in general.

But making the letter palatable to Senate Republicans, including Sen. Lamar Alexander, a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions and a former education secretary, required deleting references that were harshly critical of for-profit colleges.

The memorandum of understanding governs the Defense Department’s tuition assistance program, which provides money for active duty members of the military to pursue a college education. Originally drafted in March, it was intended to assure better quality control in programs that receive federal money. In a letter signed by the American Council on Education and other higher education associations, many colleges and universities argued that it would do just the opposite: many prominent institutions would not agree to the new terms and would be forced to withdraw from the program.

The biggest point of conflict was the requirement that colleges adhere to the principles and student bill of rights of the Servicemember Opportunity Colleges, a voluntary association made up of public universities (including some flagship institutions) as well as some community colleges and for-profit institutions. The principles include a reduced residency requirement -- members of the military should be able to earn a bachelor’s degree with only a year on campus -- and instruct colleges to award credit for military training. (Note: This paragraph has been updated from an earlier version to correct information about the composition of Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges.)

The letter, which was drafted by Democratic senators, originally lauded the department’s “intent to fight fraud and abuse against members of the armed services by certain institutions offering a subpar education.” It went on to refer to the investigation by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (and Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, its Democratic chairman) into for-profit institutions, adding: “For the past several months, we have heard repeatedly from military and veterans service organizations that many service members and veterans are being duped into attending low-quality, high-cost, for-profit higher education programs with questionable practices and poor student outcomes.”

Some higher education lobbyists argued that the letter needed Republican support to be fully credible at the Pentagon, and reached out to Republican leaders to find out what would have to change to garner their support.

The reference to “subpar education,” and all references to for-profit higher education, were cut from the version signed by Alexander and other Republicans. So was a reference to the institutions that have already signed the memorandum of understanding: “We certainly would not want to see a future in which service members were unable to attend the nation’s high-quality public and private universities using their TA dollars, and continue to be funneled to schools with poor practices and outcomes. “

The final version, which had been signed by 33 Democrats and 19 Republicans by the end of the business day Friday, portrays the Defense Department memorandum as problematic for all sectors. “We also believe that the MOU was drafted in such a way as to infringe on the educational integrity and academic plans of our nation’s colleges and universities,” the letter now reads. “As such, the MOU has failed to gain support from many of the nation’s best colleges and universities.”

Overturning the memorandum is crucial, said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director for external relations at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. Still, Nassirian, a frequent critic of for-profit institutions, said he was disappointed by the changes.

“Whatever the edits were, what the senator did here was, with no qualifications, a step in the right direction,” Nassirian said, referring to Alexander. “It improved the outcome.” Still, he said, the previous version of the letter better articulated what he views as the memorandum's problem: that it poses no problem for institutions where quality control is less strict but excludes more prominent colleges.

“Because of its micromanagement of academic issues, it ended up discouraging lots and lots of perfectly legitimate, very prestigious institutions,” Nassirian said.

Many of those institutions have relatively few students who receive tuition assistance. But Nassirian said he feared that the memorandum of understanding, if it is allowed to stand, could prove a precedent: the Veterans Affairs department, which administers the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, could impose similar requirements, perhaps followed by other parts of the federal government.

“It will leave the doors wide open to predatory rip-off operations while keeping the best operations out of eligibility,” he said.


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