The number of service members using military tuition assistance benefits declined again in fiscal 2018, continuing the trend in recent years of fewer troops taking college courses.

Overall, the number of troops using tuition assistance across all five services fell 2.5 percent, from about 239,200 in fiscal 2017 to 233,200 in fiscal 2018, the most recent year for which data is available. That’s actually a smaller drop in TA usage than occurred between fiscal 2016 and 2017, when the decline was more than 6 percent.

Since the Defense Department started tracking TA usage across its service branches in 2014, the number of troops using TA has fallen by 14.5 percent — and it has fallen even further from highs charted prior to 2014.

Despite the drop, service members continued to rely heavily on for-profit schools that have been the subject of controversy and criticism.

For-profit schools accounted for 34.7 percent of TA usage in fiscal 2018, compared with 39.7 percent for public schools and 25.7 percent for private nonprofit schools. For-profits are even more dominant among the top 50 TA schools, accounting for 39.3 percent of the student enrollment, more than public and private institutions.

Representatives of for-profit schools say that military students are continuing to enroll in their institutions because the schools offer flexible and fast degree options that better fit the lives of adult learners. But critics of for-profit education say the enrollment numbers are the result of the industry’s aggressive — and expensive — marketing efforts.

Both sides of the for-profit education debate agree on at least one thing: We need more data to better understand how well schools educate service members and veterans.

Michael Dakduk, executive vice president of the for-profit education trade group Career Education Colleges and Universities, said officials should collect and publish better data on academic programs within colleges and universities — not just on the institutions as a whole. Carrie Wofford, president of Veterans Education Success, a group that has established itself as one of the toughest critics of for-profit schools, pushed for a greater focus on academic inputs, such as the amount of money schools spend on teaching students, and not just student outcomes.

“Focus less on the type of school,” whether for-profit, public or private, said Keith Hauk, an associate vice president at University of Maryland Global Campus, a not-for-profit, public institution formerly called University of Maryland University College.

“Focus more on … what it is that school is providing, in terms of a service, and what that school is producing, in terms of an outcome.”

TA usage in fiscal 2018:

TA usage in decline

Regardless of the type of school they’re attending, fewer service members are using military tuition assistance, an education benefit available to active duty troops that covers the cost of college classes, up to $250 per semester hour, with limits on the number of classes they can take and when they can take them.

For this project, Military Times analyzed current and past TA data from DoD, as well as Coast Guard data. We then used Education Department data to group together sister schools that fall under the same board of directors or corporate entity.

Among the service branches, the Army experienced the biggest drop in TA usage in fiscal 2018, with a 5.7 percent decline, followed by the Marine Corps, which saw TA usage decline 5 percent from fiscal 2017 to fiscal 2018.

The Defense Department did not respond by press time to questions about TA usage trends.

In contrast to DoD trends, the Coast Guard increased its number of TA users in fiscal 2018 by 2.5 percent, up to nearly 4,800 service members. From fiscal 2014 to fiscal 2018, TA usage in the Coast Guard has increased by more than 23 percent.

But Coast Guard officials note that these numbers are still down from highs charted in 2012, just before budget cuts rocked the program.

“Participation numbers have been trending up each year since then,” Coast Guard spokeswoman Lisa Novak said in an email. “In fiscal year 2020 we anticipate expanding TA opportunities to reserve members.”

TA usage in the Navy also increased in fiscal 2018, by just over 1 percent. But that positive trend will likely be reversed this fiscal year as a result of the Navy halting new TA enrollments this May, due to budget constraints.

The Navy stopped accepting new TA enrollments after spending about $77 million on the benefit in fiscal 2019. Navy officials said that is roughly $2 million more than they’d budgeted for.

But notably, that budget limit is dramatically lower than the amounts the service has spent on TA in recent years. From fiscal 2015 through to fiscal 2018, the Navy spent more than $90 million on TA annually.

The view from schools

Officials from some colleges expressed concern about falling TA usage across the military.

“Much of the decline is due to restrictions and changes in TA policy that are related to budget cuts over the past several years,” said Jim Yeonopolus, chancellor of Central Texas College, a top destination for TA students.

Central Texas officials also attributed the declines to a shrinking military.

Wofford, meanwhile, said the strong economy may also play a role. College enrollment tends to increase in bad economies — when people choose to go to school and increase their skills rather than compete in a tough labor market — and decrease in good economies.

American Public Education Inc., better known to service members as American Military University, expressed concerns about DoD policies restricting base access for officials from mostly online schools, such as AMU. The advising such school officials do is critical, said John Aldrich, a vice president at the institution.

“Service members are adult learners. They need help getting started,” Aldrich said.

AMU, a for-profit institution, remained the most popular destination for TA users in fiscal 2018, a designation it has maintained for years. The school’s TA enrollment was down 2.2 percent from the previous year, but that drop was slightly less than the overall decrease in TA usage over this period.

And other top TA schools saw much steeper declines. Central Texas College, a public school, shed 14.5 percent of its TA population from fiscal 2017 to fiscal 2018, while for-profit Ashford University dropped by 12 percent.

A spokesman for Ashford parent company Zovio, previously called Bridgepoint Education, expressed little concern about his school’s drop in TA enrollment, noting falling TA usage overall.

“At Ashford, the percentage of military-affiliated students, student veterans, DOD employees, and eligible family members has remained relatively constant,” spokesman Nolan Sundrud said in an email.

University of Maryland Global Campus bucked the negative trend, increasing its TA enrollment by 3.5 percent and maintaining the No. 2 spot among TA schools. Hauk attributed the growth to his school’s service and outreach to TA students, including a large footprint on military bases.

“We’re there, wherever those service members are,” Hauk said.

For-profits remain popular

Critics of for-profit education have waged a long public campaign against such schools, saying they recruit service members and veterans too aggressively and do a poor job educating students.

In the face of such criticism, TA enrollment at for-profits has fallen — but only slightly, and the sector continues to enroll many students using the benefit.

“I think it’s probably largely due to the heavy recruiting focus,” said Wofford, of Veterans Education Success. “The schools are heavily invested in recruiting military students.”

But Dakduk, the for-profit trade group representative, said service members and veterans choose for-profit schools because the institutions typically offer more flexible education options that are a good fit for troops and other adult learners.

“Every service member and veteran should have the right to choose where they want to go to school,” Dakduk said.