Some for-profit institutions say they just wanted face-to-face access to their students on military bases like other traditional colleges that operate there.
But veterans' groups and some Democratic senators are upset by a provision approved Tuesday as part of a defense policy bill that essentially eases for-profit colleges' access to military bases.
Those for-profit colleges have argued that they've been denied access to military bases because of Pentagon policy briefs that prohibit institutions from providing counseling services alone, which primarily affects online-based colleges. The problem has had the greatest effect on online-based institutions that enroll significant numbers of military students, like American Public University System, which operates American Military University and American Public University.
The Senate provision would essentially ensure that institutions, including for-profits, can get access and provide counseling to their military-service students. But because of the vagueness of the provision, opponents of the measure fear the affected for-profit institutions will use aggressive or abusive tactics to recruit or mislead service members. For instance, the provision doesn't limit for-profits' access, once on base, to service members who are already enrolled at the institutions.
The Senate provision was proposed by Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, which is home to American Public University System. APUS enrolls more than 57,000 students. In 2013, nearly 22,000 of those students received tuition assistance from the Pentagon, and about 8,300 of the system's students received Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, according to federal data.
Critics of the Manchin-sponsored provision say it would undercut the U.S. Department of Defense memorandum of understanding that defines which institutions are allowed on bases. So far, at least nine states and more than 20 military and veterans' groups continue to oppose the provision.
Some veterans groups believe there isn't a problem with current DOD regulations and any problem APUS is facing is probably a local problem that could be resolved with bases they work with, said Carrie Wofford, president of Veterans Education Success, a nonprofit organization.
But John Aldrich, vice president of military and educational partnerships for APUS, said DOD's briefs to military bases about colleges' access advised bases to stop letting institutions on base if they provide office hours or counseling alone. That prohibition affects online-only institutions specifically because such counseling would be the only time they would have face-to-face access to their students on a military base, he said.
"It's about students being able to sit down with the schools," Aldrich said. "Eighty-three percent of service members take classes online, and they have the same access that the other 17 percent have."
As of last summer, DOD began advising that institutions that are requesting access solely for providing academic counseling or support services to students must have a minimum 20 military-connected students enrolled at their institution and must follow certain reporting requirements following the visit.
"We're 100 percent behind the language that passed yesterday," Aldrich said of Manchin's amendment. "It gets to the crux of the problem for online institutions."
But some Senate Democrats are vowing to fight the provision.
"The provision opens the floodgates to military bases and service members for for-profit college recruiters," said Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat, in a statement. "Not only is the provision harmful, but it is unnecessary. [Institutions of higher education] already have the ability to gain access to military installations for certain legitimate educational activities. I will work with others who are opposed to this provision to get it removed in conference" between House and Senate lawmakers over the legislation.
Opponents say the Manchin provision doesn't limit advising and support services to an institution's currently enrolled students, which is a problem.
"There have been well-documented cases of IHEs using access to military bases gained under the guise of offering advising and other services for recruitment," Durbin said. "The Senate-passed language does not limit an IHE's contact with service members, once on base, to students it currently enrolls. This creates the opportunity for IHEs to clandestinely or openly use their access to recruit other service members to their programs."