Society and Culture, Education

Educating America’s veterans: The case of the missing for-profits

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Yesterday, President Obama announced a new push to help returning veterans access a college education in their transition to civilian life and the labor market. The president told the Disabled American Veterans Convention:

With our new transition assistance program we’re doing more to help departing service members and their spouses plan their careers and find that new job. We’re going to keep helping our newest veterans and their families pursue their education under the Post-9/11 GI Bill. . .

I also said that schools need to step up their support so we’re doing more to help our veterans succeed on campus. So today, we’re announcing what we call “8 Keys to Success” — specific steps that schools can take to truly welcome and encourage our veterans. And so far, more than 250 community colleges and universities have signed on, and today I’m calling on schools across America to join us in this effort. Let’s help our veterans get that degree, get that credential and compete for the high-skilled jobs of tomorrow.

With the end of the military presence in Iraq and the drawdown in Afghanistan, these efforts to help America’s veterans find success in the civilian labor force come at a very important time.

What’s curious about the “8 Keys to Success,” though, is that there is not a single for-profit college or university on the list of the 247 signatories. The list is predominately made up of public community colleges and four-year institutions. Six of the 247 are private, non-profit colleges, including Syracuse, American U, and innovative players like Southern New Hampshire University and Excelsior College.

The lack of for-profit representation is strange, given that proprietary colleges are some of the largest providers of postsecondary education to both veterans using GI Bill benefits and to active duty military personnel (who are entitled to tuition benefits from the Department of Defense). According to data from Senator Tom Harkin’s office, for-profit colleges received about 38% of all funds spent on post-9/11 GI Bill grants in 2011, and 50% of the money spent on DoD tuition benefits that year. These numbers reflect large veteran enrollments. In fact, according to 2009 data from the VA, the six institutions with the largest number of students receiving GI Bill aid were all for-profit colleges, as were eight of the top ten.

You would think that with all that experience, maybe these institutions have learned a thing or two about the specific challenges veterans might face and what models are well suited to their needs. At the very least, wouldn’t it make sense to ask the largest providers of a given service to commit to a national, public effort to improve that service? (The irony is, the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities released its own report on “best practices” for institutions serving veterans back in February.)

Now, it’s possible the administration asked some proprietary colleges and the colleges turned them down — after all, there is no love lost between that sector and the Democrats. But it is also possible that leading Democrats’ suspicion of the sector got the best of them. As the research released by Senator Harkin’s office suggests, Democrats tend to see the flow of veterans’ benefits to the for-profit sector as prima facie evidence of a problem.

But here’s the rub: while there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of deceitful and fraudulent behavior on the part of the for-profits — like the disturbing stories recently reported by Holly Petraeus of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — we actually have no earthly idea how veterans fare in particular programs or at particular institutions. Colleges are not required to track that information, and a recent survey of 275 institutions found that just 10% of colleges could report the first-year retention rate of veteran students. Sixty-eight percent did not track completion rates separately for veterans and non-veterans. Better data on veterans’ success are coming, thanks to a partnership between the VA and the National Student Clearinghouse. But they have not been released yet.

In fact, the evidence we do have on this question is not nearly as tidy as the snub implies. In the GAO’s analysis of “highly VA-funded” colleges, analysts found that after accounting for differences in the student body, “highly VA-funded nonprofit and for-profit schools had significantly higher graduation rates than public schools, after adjusting for other factors” (page 28). However, the highly-VA funded for-profits also had higher loan default rates than their public counterparts even after controlling for other variables (page 29). A mixed record, at best.

To be clear: the point is not that the for-profits are serving veterans better than other types of institutions, nor to dismiss real evidence of fraud or abuse. Sham programs should be stamped out — across all sectors. But as AEI Education’s latest volume Private Enterprise In Public Education argues, for-profits are not good or evil, but bring both unique strengths and potential weaknesses to efforts to improve schooling.

If this is truly a national movement to ensure that our returning veterans have access to the quality educational options they deserve, does it really make sense to ignore 40%-50% of the veteran’s education market?

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