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The Pentagon is ramping up oversight of the $517 million program that provides tuition assistance money for the active-duty force amid mounting concerns that it is ripe for waste and abuse.
The new rules which will oversee online-only programs for the first time aim to address reports that for-profit schools are targeting troops with aggressive recruiting tactics.
A new Web-based complaint form will allow troops to report, and the Pentagon to track, alleged problems with specific schools that receive tuition assistance money.
And a top official is promising a crackdown on school recruiters who harass troops, charge excessive fees or fail to provide sufficient support for their students.
"Some institutions are very aggressive in marketing," said Robert Gordon, deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy, at a recent Senate hearing about the military's tuition program.
"What we can do and will do better is to help to educate our post and base commanders about some of these practices, and some of the protocols and procedures they can use to both monitor when these actions take place and take action," Gordon said at the March 2 hearing.
A recent report from the Government Accountability Office found that military oversight of the education programs is lacking, and that some for-profit schools use improper tactics to enroll troops.
The GAO found that one for-profit school was charging higher tuition rates for troops than for civilians, and was offering service members $100 gas cards upon course completion.
A recruiter for another for-profit school continually called and e-mailed a service member day and night after he opted not to attend the school, the report said.
Pentagon spending on tuition assistance has more than tripled in the past decade, from $157 million in 2000 to more than $517 million last year. Rules allow troops to select any school with a basic accreditation and apply for up to $4,500 a year in assistance.
Lawmakers increasingly have grown concerned about for-profit schools, which tap government coffers from several sources, including the Education and Veterans Affairs departments.
The GAO, at the request of Congress, examined the military's oversight of schools and concluded it "was narrow in scope and lacked accountability."
Those efforts targeted only schools that offered face-to-face classes on military bases. But service members increasingly are turning to online schools because their flexibility suits the mobile military lifestyle; last year, online schools received about 71 percent of all tuition assistance money.
The Defense Department plans to begin militarywide oversight and third-party reviews of both brick-and-mortar and online schools in October, according to the report.
A broader GAO investigation last year found some for-profit schools used deceptive and fraudulent tactics to market their programs. The Education Department is working to develop its own set of new rules for schools that receive federal grants and loans.
Online programs may appeal to troops who face frequent deployments and moves because they can pursue their education at their own pace regardless of geography, but some lawmakers question the value troops are getting.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said he conducted a study of for-profit schools receiving funding through the GI Bill and found that many have low loan-repayment rates and high student-default rates, suggesting students have trouble finding gainful employment after earning their degrees.
Harkin asked officials how the military evaluates the schools that receive tuition assistance and found an "alarming lack of information."
"DoD is not tracking this," he said at the March 2 hearing. "They don't track students. They don't have any idea what's happening to this money. And they have no idea what's happening to graduation rates."
Harkin's study and others have come under fire from some for-profit schools, which criticize the data and conclusions.
Enrollment rates of service members and veterans by private-sector schools "are not skyrocketing, nor are our schools ‘targeting' service members or veterans," Harris Miller, president of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, said in a statement after the March 2 hearing.
"Students with a military background select our schools because PSCUs offer a no-frills approach to a quality higher education," he said. "Demand for private-sector colleges and universities by members of the military has grown because of flexible and accelerated schedules, targeted programs, and a focus on educating adults for specific careers."