Veterans using the Post-9/11 GI Bill leveled off in fiscal 2015, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, marking the first time the popular new benefit failed to increase its base by tens or hundreds of thousands of users over the prior year.

Meanwhile, active-duty service members using military tuition assistance, or TA, fell by 2.7 percent from fiscal 2014 to fiscal 2015. But that drop is much less drastic than the 16 percent plummet charted a year earlier, data from the Defense Department and Coast Guard show.

Other information collected by Military Times as part of the annual analysis showed that for-profit institutions' military students tend to pass classes at higher rates. University of Phoenix, a for-profit college the Defense Department briefly barred from enrolling new TA students in 2015-16, actually posted one of the best course completion rates among big TA schools.

Those outcomes challenge common perceptions about for-profit institutions, which have come under heightened scrutiny from Congress and federal agencies in recent years amid questions about their academic quality.

Officials at DoD, and among the military services, stress that the most popular colleges aren’t necessarily the best.

While some of the most popular win glowing praise from students and brass alike, others have been suspended or put on probation by federal entities for various aspects of their operations.

Enrollment drops and slowdowns

Since going into effect in 2009, use of the Post-9/11 GI Bill has skyrocketed, quickly overtaking the Montgomery GI Bill. That growth appears to have all but stopped.

In fiscal 2015, Post-9/11 GI Bill students numbered 790,507, just about 100 students more than the 790,408 who used it the previous year, VA says. But an asterisk accompanies the trend. VA says the most recent totals are calculated differently than in past years, when students changing institutions mid-fiscal year might have resulted in their being counted twice.

An apples-to-apples comparison of new data with past counts, without adjusting for duplications, would show a 36,000-student drop in Post-9/11 GI Bill users from fiscal 2014 to fiscal 2015.

The VA was unable to immediately provide reasons for the overall enrollment slowdown, and the president of the nation’s largest GI Bill college didn’t have any theories, either.

"It’s a great question," said University of Phoenix President Tim Slottow. "I’m interested in and curious about it as well."

In fiscal 2013, more than 355,000 service members enrolled in classes using TA across the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. That total plunged to about 298,100 in fiscal 2014. In fiscal 2015, it dropped to 290,100.

University of Phoenix surprised criminal justice graduate Anthony Johnson with a ceremony July 23. Johnson deploys with his Indiana Army National Guard military police unit and will miss the official ceremony. University of Phoenix was attended by the most Post-9/11 GI Bill users, and was fifth among military tuition assistance users, in fiscal 2015.

Photo Credit: University of Phoenix

Dawn Bilodeau, DoD’s voluntary education chief, attributed the drops to automatic spending cuts enacted by Congress, also known as sequestration, as well as to new rules and restrictions on who can use TA and when.

In a written statement, Bilodeau highlighted periods during which the entire TA program across DoD was suspended due to sequestration and a government shutdown.

The change in enrollment between fiscal 2014 and 2015 should be viewed as more typical than the prior year’s much steeper drop, she said.

"Due to the aforementioned irregularities, variations experienced in both FY13 and FY14 may be viewed as anomalies."

Kelly Wilmeth, a vice president at University of Maryland University College, the nation’s second-largest TA provider, largely agreed.

"I think things are starting to normalize," she said. "I think the new normal is probably the TA market shrinking, a little bit at a time, especially if the military is downsizing."

Every service branch charted fewer TA enrollments in fiscal 2015 than in fiscal 2014, except for the Navy and the Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard’s 10 percent enrollment gain in fiscal 2015 pales in comparison to the nearly 55 percent enrollment loss the prior year.

But the Navy increased its number of TA users by 31 percent in fiscal 2015, after the previous year’s 11 percent drop, apparently making it the only military branch to recover from the steep declines.

DoD’s Bilodeau said the Navy is reviewing its outcome for an explanation.

Methodology and outcomes

To track Post-9/11 GI Bill use, Military Times considered multiple VA data sets showing how many people used the GI Bill in fiscal 2015 and the resulting cost. Yellow Ribbon program use was not included. Military Times combined this data with Education Department information to group institutions that are part of the same university system.

To track tuition assistance use, information including student numbers, course counts and cost was collected from the Defense Department covering the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. The Coast Guard provided similar information, and institutions were grouped consistently with the GI Bill analysis.

Also included in the DoD data were the numbers of courses that TA students successfully completed at each institution, but the information was redacted for any college that enrolled 10 or fewer students, citing a "privacy concern." Fiscal 2015 courses reported late may not have been counted.

"Course completion is one student outcome measure and, in isolation, may not be a useful indicator of program quality or value," Bilodeau said.

Partial completion rates provided by DoD and the Coast Guard show University of Phoenix with a 96 percent course completion rate in fiscal 2015. Only one institution among the top 50 TA colleges posted a better rate.

"DoD is serving our students well by taking us off probation," Phoenix’s Slottow said. "I think the rationale that they provided for putting us on probation was not strong enough in the end."

University of Phoenix saw significant declines in its TA and Post-9/11 GI Bill populations that couldn’t be attributed to the probation — which wouldn’t have been recorded in fiscal 2015 — losing 15.6 percent of its TA population and 10.6 percent of its Post-9/11 GI Bill population between fiscal 2014 and fiscal 2015. That represents a combined $54.6 million drop in revenue from the two programs.

Slottow predicted the slide would continue, based in part on the negative attention the DoD probation brought. He said the institution is also consciously trying to reduce enrollment to bring more resources to a smaller number of programs.

"Our focus isn’t on growth. Our focus continues [to be] on quality, support, retention, graduation rate and outcomes," Slottow said.

At all colleges for which information was available, the average TA course completion rate was 91.1 percent. Private colleges charted a 92.9 percent completion rate, while for-profit institutions recorded 92.1 percent and public colleges 88.2 percent.

But for-profit and private schools are generally very pricey. Per student, they cost the government $2,055.92 and $1,977.69 respectively in TA in fiscal 2015, as compared to $1,423.03 at public institutions. Similarly, Post-9/11 GI Bill costs per student were $8,272.53 for for-profit institutions, $8,242.87 for private institutions and $4,363.25 for public institutions.

Little movement at the top

Many of the most popular Post-9/11 GI Bill colleges lost such students between fiscal 2014 and fiscal 2015. One notable exception was the University System of Maryland, where UMUC accounts for the bulk of GI Bill and TA enrollments. The system tacked on nearly 1,700 additional Post-9/11 enrollments in fiscal 2015. Similarly, the University System of Maryland increased its TA enrollment by just under 2,900 students over the same time period.

UMUC’s Wilmeth said the institution expects to continue increasing its military and veteran student populations by more than 5 percent per year.

"We do continue to grow consistently," she said. "Our vision is to be the most trusted and respected university in the military and veteran community."

AMU, meanwhile, shed 3,900 TA students between fiscal 2014 and fiscal 2015 but held mostly steady in its GI Bill enrollment. AMU’s Vice President of Military Relations John Aldrich said he expects "modest losses" in enrollment going forward but that the institution’s distance-learning model is well suited to active-duty and veteran students alike.

"They have families, and they have jobs," Aldrich said. "They don’t have to put their lives on hold to go to a brick-and-mortar school."

Even as AMU lost TA students and University of Phoenix lost GI Bill students, neither was anywhere near losing the top spot on its respective list.