'Military friendly' college lists prompt concerns

By Justin Pope

Associated Press

Published: Friday, March 30 2012 1:50 p.m. MDT

ADVANCE FOR SATURDAY, MARCH 31 AND THEREAFTER - In this photo taken, Tuesday, March 27, 2012, Iraq war veteran Army 1st Lt. Paul Rieckhoff, right, joined by, from left, Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska., Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., speaks during a news conference introducing the GI benefit watchdog bill, on Capitol Hill in Washington. In press releases and ads, colleges love boasting they're "military friendly" and "veterans friendly" _ and that isn't just because veterans are usually good students and campus leaders. It's also because the newly expanded Post 9/11 G.I. Bill will pay colleges of all types around $9 billion this year to educate nearly 600,000 veterans, and virtually every school wants to expand its slice of that pie.

Manuel Balce Ceneta, Associated Press

In press releases and ads, colleges love boasting they're "military friendly" and "veterans friendly" — and that isn't just because veterans are usually good students and campus leaders.

It's also because the newly expanded Post 9/11 G.I. Bill will pay colleges of all types around $9 billion this year to educate nearly 600,000 veterans, and virtually every school wants to expand its slice of that pie.

But some schools touting their spots on proliferating lists of "military friendly" colleges found in magazine guides and websites have few of the attributes educators commonly associate with the claim, such as accepting military credits or having a veterans organization on campus. Many are for-profit schools with low graduation rates.

The designations appear on rankings whose rigor varies but whose methods are under fire. Often, they're also selling ads to the colleges. Some websites help connect military and veteran students with degree programs that may match their interests, but don't disclose they are lead aggregators paid by the institutions — often for-profit colleges — whose programs they highlight.

"They're not real rankings," said Tom Tarantino, a veteran who is deputy policy director of the advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "What they are is advertisement catalogues." Labeling them "a huge problem," he called for standards to be established for proper use of the term "military friendly" schools.

There are signs something like that may happen. But as with the U.S. News & World Report college rankings, demand for signaling devices to help consumers shortcut complicated choices could make such lists tough to dislodge. Many experts say the lists are symptoms of a wider problem: Service members aren't getting the advice they need to make sound decisions on using the substantially expanded education benefits. It's no surprise businesses are stepping into that void.

At a large military education conference last month in Florida, some educators criticized the lists and pushed for a sharpened definition of "military friendly" colleges, to be developed either by the federal government or an education coalition called Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges.

Meanwhile, Washington is paying increasing attention to the broader problem of veterans getting reliable guidance. In recent weeks a slew of bills on the subject have surfaced.

The latest, unveiled Tuesday by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is called the "G.I. Bill Consumer Awareness Act" and would push colleges and the Department of Veterans Affairs to disclose more information on questions like licensing and job placement rates, and to develop policies to prevent misleading marketing.

Another bill would boost education counseling resources at the department, and separately, 14 senators have asked the department to trademark the term "G.I. Bill" so it will have more power to crack down on misleading advertising.

"It's not only these major lists, but all of these pay-to-play websites that come up with these nefarious rankings," said Jim Sweizer, vice president of military programs at American Public University System. APUS operates two for-profit online universities, American Military University and American Public University. Founded in 1991 by a former Marine, it calls itself the largest provider of education to the military, with two-thirds of its nearly roughly 110,000 students in the Reserves, active duty, or veterans. But last year it boycotted the best-known "military friendly" list, published by G.I. Jobs magazine, saying the system had too many shortcomings.

"The people who suffer from this are the service-members who don't know any better," Sweizer said. "They see an ad that says, 'No. 1 ranked school,' but they don't say, 'by whom?'"

Officials at other institutions say they don't like the lists but can't afford not to be on them, for fear of appearing "military unfriendly."

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