Defense Dept., Congress Seek to Improve Academic Programs That Serve the Military

September 22, 2010

The Department of Defense is planning to step up its oversight of the quality of academic programs in which active-duty military personnel enroll using federal aid to pay tuition.

And members of Congress said on Wednesday that even more may need to be done to monitor the rigor of college programs used by Department of Defense tuition-aid recipients, many of whom enroll in for-profit colleges and online programs.

At a hearing held Wednesday by a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives' Armed Services panel, Robert L. Gordon III, deputy under secretary of defense for military community and family policy, said the department has proposed expanding a program that reviews the quality of campuses located at military bases to online colleges that also serve people on those bases.

The program in question is the department's Military Installation Voluntary Educational Review, through which the American Council on Education examines the quality of educational programs on military bases. Mr. Gordon said extending the review to online programs will help the department ensure that courses will be sufficiently rigorous.

"If that is successful, we will be able to use that to better monitor or oversee the quality of education at these institutions," Mr. Gordon told members of the House Armed Services subcommittee on oversight and investigations.

The Department of Defense proposed a rule to expand the program, a change that does not need the approval of Congress. The department is now taking public comments on its plan, and the new policy could take effect as soon as December.

Quality Assurance

Wednesday's hearing was held to explore the military's oversight of the quality of programs in which about 380,000 active-duty military personnel enroll, using $580-million in tuition support per year, paid for by the federal government. The Department of Defense has had programs in place to subsidize the education costs of active-duty military personnel since 1947, with most of that money traditionally going to state universities, community colleges, and nonprofit private universities.

The subcommittee heard from representatives of the Department of Defense, and of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines about measures the military has taken to ensure program quality. Members of Congress focused on two areas: online-education programs and for-profit institutions.

No representatives from the for-profit education sector, or from other academic institutions, spoke at the hearing.

Wednesday's hearing was motivated by a story in Bloomberg Businessweek alleging that some for-profit colleges heavily focus recruiting efforts on military personnel and that some programs those institutions offer might be of poor academic quality.

The House hearing and the news report come at a time when for-profit colleges also are being scrutinized by the Senate education committee and the Education Department.

At Wednesday's hearing, military representatives said an overwhelming majority of individuals who receive Department of Defense tuition aid now take courses through online-education programs, a number that has risen significantly over the past few years. They said the programs are convenient for service members, who often have erratic schedules and might not be located near a physical campus. About 40 percent of active-duty personnel who receive tuition assistance take courses through for-profit institutions.

The military speakers all said they mostly defer to the Department of Education and accreditation agencies to ensure the quality of academic programs that service members use. They added that there are about 7,000 institutions in which military personnel can enroll through the tuition-assistance program.

Members of the subcommittee also questioned why military-tuition assistance does not count as federal aid under what is know as the "90/10 rule," a federal rule that prohibits an institution from receiving more than 90 percent of its income from financial aid. The rule was created to guard against education-industry entrepreneurs, including in the for-profit sector, who might be more interested in profiting from federal aid than in serving students.

In his closing remarks, the chairman of the subcommittee, Rep. Vic Snyder, a Democrat of Arkansas, said the defense department and Congress might need to do more to monitor the quality of these programs. The accreditation process, he said, may not be enough.

"We don't currently discriminate among schools, and that might be a problem," he said.