Military and veterans must have access to quality for-profit colleges

As the son of a prisoner of war captured during the Battle of the Bulge, and the brother of a soldier who served in Vietnam, I consider myself a strong supporter of the American military and our veterans.

Despite the recent rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) it is unlikely that this nation is going back to a large-scale war in the Middle East.  This means many of the soldiers, airmen, sailors and marines who are currently serving will be transitioning out of military service and into the public sector.  To help them find new careers as civilians, they will need educational opportunities.

When on active duty, attending a traditional four-year university is extremely difficult.  A soldier would struggle to attend daily classes. That leaves two choices: enroll in a distance-learning program or attend an online school -- many of these institutions are for-profit.  

After transitioning to civilian life, veteran’s benefits allow for greater educational prospects including: distance, online, four-year university or community college. There are opportunities and challenges associated with each of these options.

For example, if you are single and a veteran, a four-year traditional university experience may be the best. But if you have a family, you might need to work during the day to support them while you take classes at night.  This makes an online school or community college a good option.  However, many community colleges do not offer vocational courses like electrical engineering.  These types of classes are more typically offered by for-profit schools and might appeal to someone who had electrical training in the military.

In reality, the traditional path to college doesn’t always suit current and former military. Therefore, I believe we need to preserve academic options to help ensure those in the service and veterans have successful careers in the public sector.  Not everyone shares my opinion, though.

There is a movement in this nation to try and steer active duty military and veterans away from for-profit colleges.

One of the most vocal leaders of this movement is Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). In a committee hearing, Durbin said that he told his nephew, who was in the military, not to attend American Military University (AMU), a for-profit online college. Why? Because the senator believes that AMU is “just another for-profit college.”

For the record, AMU – which is part of the American Public University Systems (APUS) -- is an online, for-profit college that specializes in educating current military and veterans. Of the more than 100,000 active students enrolled at APUS, almost 60 percent of them are currently serving in the armed forces.

Would you be surprised if I told you these facts about APUS?

US News and World Report ranks APUS’s online Bachelor’s Degree as 34th best in the nation. The school’s loan default rates are, in fact, lower than the national average. In 2011, APUS received a $250,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates and William & Flora Hewlett Foundations to better understand how online education can help economically disadvantaged students.  According to the school’s website: “Our combined tuition, fees, and books are roughly 20% less for undergraduate and 33% less for graduate students than the average in-state rates at a public university.”

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) -- a notoriously tough critic of for-profit colleges -- investigated for-profit higher education in 2012, and publicly praised APUS for doing a good job.

APUS demonstrates that for-profit colleges can succeed in delivering educational opportunity.  Yes, there are critically underperforming for-profits. I think the government should take steps to put them out of business, like they did with Corinthian College. 

But failing to recognize the success of schools like APUS, because some for-profit schools are bad actors, does a real disservice to the very people the critics of for-profits are portending to help: active duty military and veterans.  When critics demean the hard work of for-profit college students, they make it harder for those individuals to find jobs because it biases employers and human resources professionals against them.

As the Department of Education and Congress consider regulations and laws targeted at for-profits, I implore them to take steps to ensure that quality, for-profit schools remain affordable options for active duty military and veterans. We owe these individuals, who have defended our freedom, educational opportunities that help them to succeed after they leave military service.  

Shows, a Blue Dog Democrat, seved in the House from 1999 – 2003.

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