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Top TA school under fire for its name

Aug. 1, 2013 - 02:28PM   |  
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A leading Senate Democrat is taking aim at the nation’s top military tuition assistance school, saying its name could be tricking service members.

“With a name like the American Military University, a prospective student could easily draw the conclusion that your school is somehow affiliated with, if not wholly part of, the United States military,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said in an Aug. 1 letter to Wallace Boston, president and CEO of the for-profit school’s parent company, American Public Education Inc.

Jim Sweizer, AMU’s vice president for military programs, said that in the more than 20 years the school has operated — all under the same name — neither the Defense Department, regulators nor accrediting agencies have suggested that the school, or its name, are misleading troops.

“I think you have to give credit to our military students, that they know the difference between a military organization and a university that has our name,” said Sweizer, who was chief of the Air Force’s Voluntary Education Program before joining AMU. “I personally have never encountered someone who said to me, ‘Oh, I thought you were a military university.’ ”

American Public Education Inc.’s schools, primarily AMU, are by far the most popular institutions among troops using tution assistance. The system attracted nearly 57,000 TA students and took in more than $114 million in TA money across the military in fiscal 2012.

Its closest competitor, the University System of Maryland, took in about 35,500 students and more than $55 million, according to Military Times analysis of data provided by each branch of the military.

Durbin’s letter is the latest salvo in a long-running feud between some Democratic lawmakers and the for-profit institutions they accuse of vacuuming up federal education dollars while offering little in return to students.

In the wake of such criticism, prominent for-profit institutions have changed some of their practices, and the sector’s trade group has published a list of best practices for schools to follow.

Sweizer and other for-profit officials have said that they should no longer be singled out, and all colleges and universities should receive the same scrutiny. Independent and prominent veterans service organizations are saying the same, with Ryan Gallucci, deputy legislative director for Veterans of Foreign Wars, calling the sharp focus on for-profits and their finances a “distraction.”

As Sweizer pointed out, a sometimes scathing report on for-profit colleges released last year by another leading Senate critic, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, actually praised AMU, saying the school and its parent company are “better than many of the companies examined, suggesting that students are faring better at this institution.”

In a telephone interview, Durbin said he thinks careful attention should be paid to academic success rates at all institutions, whether for-profit or not. But he added that he has particular concerns about the amount of money that AMU and other for-profits charge their students and the proportion that is reinvested in the classroom.

“Like most for-profit schools, they are much more expensive than the alternative,” Durbin told Military Times. He added later that military education benefits are valuable resources for troops. “We want them to spend these once-in-a-lifetime opportunities well, for their own futures and for the taxpayers who are paying for it.”

Sweizer said the school’s president has not yet decided on the request in Durbin’s letter that AMU add a disclaimer to its website stating that it is not affiliated with the military.

“Personally, I would see no harm in us placing that on our website, if clarification is needed,” Sweizer said.

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