"Some schools feel 'I'm damned if I do, damned if I don't," said Ramona McAfee, assistant dean of military and federal programs and Columbia College in Missouri, a critic of the lists whose school still participates.
But for some lesser-known colleges, such lists can get their names in front of prospective students — which, they say, expands veterans' horizons. Last year, when G.I. Jobs magazine published its list, a flurry of colleges shared the news in press releases, and local newspapers often followed with stories.
"We certainly aren't going to change the landscape of our campus by seeking out tons of veterans but we wanted to make sure we were giving them every opportunity and making this transition easier for them," said Sarah Palace, assistant dean for adult enrollment at one school that put out such a release, the College of Notre Dame in Ohio (not to be confused with the larger University of Notre Dame in Indiana, which also put out a release). The smaller Notre Dame has only about 20 full-time veteran students but hopes to recruit more. Palace listed practices she says make the place military friendly: encouraging transfers, examining military transcripts, working with a local veterans service center.
It's impossible to say whether veterans are widely misled by "military friendly" lists. Some educators say it's patronizing to suppose military people read the lists uncritically.
But there are worrisome signs that, more broadly, veterans aren't making informed decisions and could waste their benefits on low-value degrees. While for-profit colleges may be a good choice for many, on average they cost more, have lower graduation rates and in some cases have accreditation limitations. They also recruit aggressively. In the first two years after the new G.I. Bill was passed in 2008, they enrolled 25 percent of veterans using the benefits and collected 37 percent of the payments to colleges.
After former Marine Cpl. Moses Maddox finished his first tour of duty in Iraq, he started — and ended — his college search with an Internet query.
"I looked up 'GI Bill friendly schools' and it said 'hey, come to the University of Phoenix,'" Maddox said. He won't single out Phoenix, which collected $133 million from the G.I. Bill in 2010-2011, but it wasn't a good fit, and he later dropped out, re-enlisted and returned to Iraq. After his second tour he enrolled in Palomar College in California, but discovered his Phoenix credits wouldn't transfer. He now gives education counseling to veterans at Palomar.
They're "just so lost after getting out that they just show up with a DD214 (military service record) and say, 'I want to go to school. How do I start?'" he said. When the benefit's 36-month expiration passes and they're stuck with credits they didn't realize were worthless, "it's the hardest part of my job to tell these vets you have to start all over again."
The G.I. Jobs "Guide to Military Friendly Colleges" is probably the best known list, with annual circulation of 135,000 and reaching more through its website, militaryfriendlyschools.com.
The publication insists it's far more rigorous than the apparently fly-by-night options that show up for pages in response to a Google search for "military friendly colleges."
G.I. Jobs sends questionnaires to 8,000 institutions, says it gets about half back, and lists the 1500 most military friendly (it claims that's the top 20 percent, though of the responses, it's more than one-third).
Unlike others, G.I. Jobs does share the general formula used to select military friendly colleges: 45 percent in one "effort" category, measuring things like flexible learning programs and academic credit, 35 percent for financial effort (including tuition benefits and the percentage of recruiting budget directed to veterans),15 percent for results (such as percentage of military students enrolled) and 5 percent for a category that includes accreditations.
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