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Most popular colleges: What to know before you go

Jul. 28, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Military Education
Spc. Bradley Darnell, an Army food service specialist, shaved a semester off his associate degree from Central Texas College with credit for his military training. (Lance Rosenfield)
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Schools known for their flexible learning options are by far the most popular among both active-duty service members using tuition assistance and veterans and their dependents using the Post-9/11 GI Bill, government data show.

American Military University, an online-only school, has established itself as the undisputed top contender among active-duty troops in all services, whose deployments to far-flung regions of the world can make going to a physical classroom impossible.

Even after discharge, many vets still demand leeway on scheduling, class locations, online learning and academic credit transfer that traditional schools have been slow to offer.

Military Times collected and analyzed data from more than a half-dozen federal departments to determine which schools attracted the most students using Post-9/11 GI Bill and military tuition assistance benefits in fiscal 2013.

The top finishers included schools of all types — for-profit, private and public — some with sterling reputations, some that have received sharp criticism from oversight organizations. One school system is even having to sell or close its schools under pressure from federal regulators.

See a breakdown of the top 10 tuition assistance schools for each service.

The fact that a school is popular among troops and vets doesn’t mean it offers a quality education or is right for you.

We quizzed some of the most popular institutions on how they attracted so many students. They told us that they have developed many programs and initiatives for their military and veteran students in recent years, such as veterans centers, veteran-specific classes and workshops, and scores of employees dedicated just to the needs of military students.

But offering flexible learning may be the most important way that schools can cater to current and former service members.

As a group, for-profit schools have addressed this need the fastest, and they remain top destinations for troops and vets, despite years of scrutiny from lawmakers — Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, launched his most recent strike July 30 — as well as from media outlets and school oversight organizations.

University of Phoenix may be the best example of flexible options.

“Our programs were developed around the adult learner,” said Garland Williams, a retired Army colonel who is now that school’s vice president for military relations. “We fit into their already-busy schedules.”

The for-profit school has dozens of small campuses scattered throughout the country and also offers many online classes. Degree plans are career-focused and shun traditional class schedules in favor of a setup in which students are expected to take only one class at a time, but the class lasts five to six weeks, Williams said.

All of this can make earning a degree easier for older students who have more to worry about than your typical recent high school graduate — full-time jobs, spouses, children. That describes many veterans.

But outside groups are worried about the quality of University of Phoenix education.

While the school remains accredited, in June 2013, the Higher Learning Commission placed University of Phoenix on notice, citing concerns with its administration, teaching effectiveness and demonstration of student learning and skill acquisition.

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

In other recent news — not a quality issue — the California State Approving Agency for Veterans Education notified the University of Phoenix’s San Diego Campus in a letter last month that some of its programs were enrolling GI Bill beneficiaries in numbers that exceed state rules. The letter said the school must get approval from a state veterans official before enrolling more such students in those programs.

Phoenix is not alone in accreditation struggles.

Within the last month, Corinthian Colleges Inc. — No. 21 among Post-9/11 GI Bill beneficiaries — has had to agree to sell off most of its schools after the Education Department restricted access to federal financial aid. The feds did so after Corinthian failed to provide information on job placement and enrollment, amid allegations that the schools used fraudulent data to market to students (for more, turn to Page 11).

Other schools have been dinged by oversight groups but survived. Bridgepoint Education’s Ashford University was placed on notice by its accreditor in early 2013 but had its accreditation continued later in the year. Trident University International was placed on probation by its accrediting agency in 2011 but had its accreditation reaffirmed early last year.

The most popular TA school, also a for-profit, has largely avoided the criticism directed at others in its sector and tends to enjoy a good reputation among service members.

“We’re always seeing where a current student will bring in a co-worker to talk to one of our representatives,” said Jim Sweizer, vice president for military programs at American Military University.

Sweizer attributes the school’s popularity to word-of-mouth recommendations, the flexibility of online learning and a moderate price tag. AMU also develops degree programs with the needs and abilities of troops in mind, such as new undergraduate and graduate offerings in cybersecurity rolling out in the fall.

University of Maryland University College, a public school, also has pioneered flexible distance education geared toward adult students. Driven largely by UMUC, its parent University System of Maryland landed within the top four most popular Post-9/11 GI Bill and tuition assistance schools.

James Selbe, senior vice president for military partnerships and strategic alliances at UMUC, said the school focuses on career development and job placement for its students. For military students, he added, it’s particularly important to offer special guidance for their unique and sometimes complex education benefits.

“You really have to have specialized advisers to help guide them through” the GI Bill options, tuition assistance and other programs, Selbe said.

The California Community Colleges system has taken advantage of the state’s large veteran population, attracting huge numbers of Post-9/11 GI Bill users to the campuses of its 112 schools.

David Lawrence, veterans services specialist within the chancellor’s office, said roughly half of those schools have created veteran resource centers, despite receiving no dedicated state funding to do so.

“It’s kind of a grass-roots movement in our system,” he said.

Member institutions also meet in statewide summits to share best practices for veteran education, Lawrence added.

Central Texas College seeks to accommodate its military students by offering in-person classes at bases and installations around the world, as well as online degrees, said Chancellor Thomas Klincar.

When Washington budget squabbles in 2013 led to a temporary stoppage of TA funding, Central Texas responded by simply picking up the tab for all of the school’s continuing TA students. The school grants covered all the costs that TA would have, allowing the students to continue without a lapse in their educations.

“Nothing speaks more clearly to our intent to serve the military than what happened when voluntary education tuition assistance was cut off,” Klincar said.

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