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Special Report: Most popular colleges for TA and GI Bill

AMU, Phoenix dominate military & veteran education benefits

Jul. 28, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
University of Maryland University College students participate in class discussion during their Sociology of Disasters class at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland.
University of Maryland University College students participate in class discussion during their Sociology of Disasters class at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. (Rob Curtis/Staff)
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American Military University continued its dominance of the military tuition assistance market in fiscal 2013, while the University of Phoenix more than doubled the Post-9/11 GI Bill enrollment of its closest competitor.

Over the past few years, both for-profit schools have emerged from tight competitions with public college and university systems to become the clear favorites of current and former service members, a Military Times analysis of federal data indicates.

For the first nearly two years of the Post-9/11 GI Bill’s existence, from August 2009 to June 2011, more students attended the schools of the California Community College System than University of Phoenix.

That trend reversed dramatically over the next two years. In fiscal 2013, Phoenix pulled in roughly as many students as the next three school systems combined, data from the Veterans Affairs Department indicates — even as for-profit schools as a group, and occasionally the University of Phoenix in particular, became the subject of intense criticism from some in Washington.

In order to continue as the top destination for Post-9/11 GI Bill students in fiscal 2014, Phoenix will have to overcome that criticism as well as a sanction from its accrediting agency.

The school remains accredited, but in June 2013, as the fiscal year was coming to an end, the Higher Learning Commission placed the school on notice, citing concerns with its administration, teaching effectiveness and demonstration of student learning and skill acquisition.

Garland Williams, the school’s vice president for military relations, said he thought a big part of the problem wasn’t that Phoenix was failing to meet its accreditor’s standards but rather that it didn’t have evidence to show it was meeting the standards.

“We had a couple of policies and procedures to change,” Williams said. “From my vantage point, I think we’re on track” to fix the accreditation problem.

Williams attributed the school’s popularity among veterans and service members to its tight focus on career education and the flexibility of its classes, which are available online and in person at many locations throughout the country.

“We fit into their already-busy schedules,” Williams said. “Flexibility, availability, and we have the programs they want ... for the careers that they want to aspire to.”

David Lawrence, the veterans services specialist for the California Community Colleges Chancellors Office, said budget cutbacks fueled by the recent economic downturn forced the system to offer fewer classes. That may have driven Post-9/11 GI Bill students to schools such as Phoenix, he said.

“As our state economy has improved, we’ve got more money for more courses,” Lawrence said. “We’ve got affordable classes, and they’ll have easy access to those classes.”

On the TA side, American Public Education Inc., the parent company of AMU, has grown from offering slightly fewer courses to TA students than the University System of Maryland in 2009, to offering nearly twice as many in 2013.

Jim Sweizer, the school’s vice president for military programs, said the online-only school offers classes that service members can take wherever they may be, and that its students’ positive experiences have become a recruiting tool.

“We’re always seeing where a current student will bring in a co-worker to talk to one of our representatives,” Sweizer said.

James Selbe, senior vice president for military partnerships and strategic alliances at University of Maryland University College, said service members are attracted to his school by the personal advice and guidance that it provides.

UMUC is not focused on AMU’s rapid growth, he said.

“It’s nothing that’s caused angst here within the university, because we continue to serve a similar number of students that we’ve always served,” he said.

Among the 50 most popular TA schools and systems, for-profit institutions accounted for 47 percent of the students, with public schools taking about 33 percent and private schools a little less than 20 percent. Within this group, for-profit schools cost an average of $748.54 per class, private schools averaged $724.57, and public schools averaged $556.81.

Public universities proved significantly more popular among the top 50 Post-9/11 GI Bill schools, where they accounted for more than 46 percent of the students. For-profits accounted for 45 percent and private colleges about 8 percent of this group.

Fiscal 2013 saw an unexpected brief shutdown of TA by some branches of the military.

During that time, Central Texas College, the third-most-popular TA school, opted simply to pick up the cost of classes for its affected military students.

“If we didn’t, it would have just set so many students behind for such a long time that it would have been difficult for them to recover,” said Thomas Klincar, the school’s chancellor.

The students have pressed on, but the TA program is now more limited, Klincar and others said.

“We’re seeing greater and greater restrictions on the amount of tuition assistance that can be used, the number of students that can take advantage of it,” Klincar said. “It’s more difficult than ever. I don’t see that as changing. I think we’re in an entirely different time.”

As for the Post-9/11 GI Bill, UMUC’s Selbe said he could envision new restrictions being put in place regarding transfer of the benefit to dependents.

But as for changes to that program for service members themselves, “I would fall out of my chair and be completely shocked to see any changes to those benefits,” he said.

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