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The Scam of Online Universities

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The day that many members of the Armed Forces leave the service, they’re overwhelmed by confusion about the direction of their life.  For years, their focus has been on deployments, readiness, training for combat, appeasing the First Sergeant or Senior Chief and all of the aspects of military life. Many are wondering what the next step is. And for a lot of folks, the answer is getting a college degree.

The post-9/11 G.I. Bill pays for veterans’ books and tuition, and also pays BAH – the Basic Allowance for Housing – as long as you’re in school.  The benefits don’t just apply to college, either. They work for trade schools, targeted training, and professional certifications.  And if you don’t want to go to school, you can transfer your benefits to your spouse or your children. The post-9/11 G.I. Bill is one of the most comprehensive and beneficial entitlements that’s been granted to veterans in a long time, and folks who have earned it would be crazy not to take it.

Unfortunately, all too many veterans are choosing to attend online colleges instead of traditional brick-and-mortar schools. They’re being taken for a ride that leaves them with a subpar education, and sticks the government with a huge bill.

I sat down for an interview with a former sales representative for American Intercontinental University who really opened my eyes.  She said that these schools, like the University of Phoenix and American Intercontinental University, can barely be called “universities.”  They offer cut-rate educations and their degrees are very misleading.  Students go in expecting dedicated training in history or English or whatever their selected major is, but all too often, they’re given boilerplate business and marketing classes, with one or two classes related to their majors thrown into the curriculum.

Many veterans don’t know much about the higher education system, so they’re easily taken in by shoddy schools. They promise an easy degree, obtained from the comfort of your own home, and most people think that a degree is “just a piece of paper.” But they’re dead wrong. College is about getting the education you’ll need to actually perform in a highly competitive job market.  And these schools have deep institutional problems.  Almost two-thirds of people who attend for-profit online universities drop out in the first year – but the government is still stuck with the bill, and they’ve been turned off from the prospect of college.

In 2010, the VA put out 4.4 billion dollars in education benefits, and almost a quarter of that money went to just eight for-profit universities. But the veterans who actually stay with the programs long enough aren’t getting the education they need, and so the American taxpayer is out all that money, and the veteran is unprepared for their professional career.

Many for-profit schools do make it easy for people to join, and too easy for people to graduate. Though they’re regionally accredited, many schools’ degrees are nearly worthless. There’s a wonderful old quote by Rumi that says “That something is difficult makes it worth doing.” Folks in the military and their families understand the value of hard work and sacrifice. The VA should implement tough standards for schools that offer only online curriculum, and stop offering reimbursements for cut-rate schools until they improve their curriculum.

Correction:  I was previously – and erroneously – informed that American Military University was a branch of a less-than-reputable institution.  It is not, and has actually been praised by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs for its service to military men and women.  Thanks to Military Family members Alice Jacobsen, Tom Mason and AMU’s Brian Muys for bringing this to my attention.  I apologize for the mistake.


  1. Kiona Strickland

    October 31, 2011

    Thanks for posting this! The thing people need to remember is that there is a HUGE difference between an online for-profit school and a traditional school with a physical campus somewhere that happens to offer degree programs online. Lots of established, reputable universities offer online or distance learning programs that carry the university’s full accreditation and offer much better support for students. That’s your best bet for getting the flexibility and portability of an online program from someplace legitimate.

    I think if the VA were going to stop offering reimbursements for certain programs, they need to base it on accreditation, rather than a blanket decision that online programs will no longer be reimbursed.

  2. Gabriel Coeli

    November 2, 2011

    I actually had the opportunity to do some online and distance-based education with my school, the Evergreen State College, and it was amazing. It’s the for-profit schools like University of Phoenix that are the bad ones here, because they overcharge the government, give terrible education and market aggressively to service members and veterans.

  3. Kiona Strickland

    November 3, 2011

    You’re right about that; I have a friend who got a University of Phoenix degree and was then stunned by the fact that prospective employers didn’t take it seriously. She herself was a very diligent student and as competent as they come, but the school’s lack of accreditation counted against her. It was really sad. Thanks for the warning for all of us!

  4. Alice Jacobson

    November 7, 2011

    I disagree with your comment about American Military University. Part of the American Public University System, it is nationally as well as regionally accredited (http://www.apus.edu/accreditation-licensure/), and has a extremely good reputation as an online school. Full disclosure: I just graduated from AMU with a master’s degree in History. AMU offers many other majors, to include national security affairs, intelligence studies, and management, to name a few. They offer degrees at the associates, bachelor’s, and master’s levels. I found my courses very rigorous, and my professors (all PhDs) engaging and demanding (as well as fair and responsive). I chose AMU because I traveled a lot in my job, and could log-in at any time/in any location. Because of my professors’ feedback, I am seriously considering going for my PhD, and feel fully prepared for that challenge because of my education at AMU. Yes, it is expensive; I paid $825 for each 3-credit course (36 total credits were required for my degree). And they accept the GI-Bill – I know because I worked with some active duty personnel who were AMU students. (I retired before the GI Bill was passed and had not signed on for the earlier version of it.) Do a little research about on-line schools before before you lump them altogether as a scam – AMU is NOT.

  5. Thomas Mason, M.Ed., B.S.

    November 7, 2011

    Distance learning has been around for decades. Members of the military (like myself) have taken advantage of these opportunities through a variety of providers. In the beginning it used to be that you mailed packets back and forth. Now, the online modality is much more interactive. The delivery of content is much more robust. If you want to go back to having deployed military members mailing packets back and forth, you are waaaay behind the times.

    The reason the delivery of distance learning has made such great strides is because of the for-profits. State universities are slow to move and change. For comparison, look at the online offerings of the University of Phoenix and compare them to the state university in the same town (Arizona State University). ASU’s online program is rudimentary and offers only a fraction of their ground programs in the online environment. I’m not referrring to the applied sciences, but their information-based programs as well. For-profits drive innovation. I could not have completed my undergraduate degree without for-profits, since the “good” universities were not there to service me when I needed classes.

    However, online classes aren’t for everyone. If you require face-to-face interaction or are not intrinsically motivated to earn a degree, this isn’t for you. However, if you are a self-starter, have an interest in your program topic, and still want to (or have to) work full-time, you can succeed in online classes. I’m using Chapter 33 to complete my doctorate at Liberty University (private not-for-profit) and understand that I will get out of my program as much as I put into it.

    This is shallow coverage of this topic. Painting the entire for-profit industry with a broad brush is so completely intellectually lazy. The author admits that his online classes through ESU were amazing, yet doesn’t understand that this modality was born and refined in the for-profit environment. Research, young man, research.

  6. Gabriel Coeli

    November 7, 2011

    Thomas, thanks for bringing this to my attention! I dug a little deeper and found that you are indeed correct about American Military University. I’ve updated my post to reflect.

  7. Gabriel Coeli

    November 7, 2011

    Sorry to leave you out, Alice. You too! I appreciate the comments.

  8. Jamie Robinson

    November 13, 2011

    A former sales representative is hardly an authority on this topic. Please keep in mind that today’s young professional leaves the academic environment to enter an increasingly virtual workplace. Also, note recent efforts to implement telework programs in the Federal government (an employer of veterans) and virtual conference policies to reduce the cost of meeting with geographically separated conference attendees.

    Why wouldn’t the type of learning environment that works best for the student be a factor in determining the quality of the education; I’d assume it is irrelevant given the argument the author makes. Cost and quality of education are partly driven by the amount the student (or Dept of VA in this case) is willing to pay and, at a minimum, accreditation requirements. So, if accreditation provides the minimum level of quality an accredited higher education institution must provide, how did we come to the conclusion that online education is generally substandard?

    I noticed the staggering number of students who drop out in the first year of online education, but, I’d be interested to know why and also how that compares to the “brick-and-mortar” education institutions. Also, how many more individuals have chosen to pursue higher education as a result of the online learning environment. I’d also be interested to see how many students were able to graduate through online education who did not have the flexibility to pursue higher education in the traditional classroom setting. There’s also the matter of perception that needs to be considered; did these students drop out because they assumed the online learning environment produced degrees with very little effort and learned the contrary while enrolled?

    My point is that the article makes a very bold and misleading statement. I completely agree that substandard education is a concern, but, I am hardly sold on the idea that substandard education is attributed to the online learning environment. I would caution the author to please consider the audience of Military Family, the organization’s influence, and the appropriate level of research that should accompany a position on a topic as important as education.

  9. Gabriel Coeli

    November 14, 2011

    The article is specifically aimed at for-profit universities who offer shoddy degrees that are barely accreditable. Veterans and military personnel deserve the information they need to make good decisions about their educational future, and not be taken in by the promise of a degree that they can get “easily” – meaning in between their busy schedules – which doesn’t give them a good quality education.

    I don’t think that online education is bunk; I’ve done much distance learning myself. There’s a great article at The Chronicle about the rapidly closing gap between brick-and-mortar and online learning: http://chronicle.com/article/Online-vs-Traditional/125115/.

    What I’m concerned about are for-profit schools that don’t provide good educations and that aggressively market toward military folks and veterans.

  10. A

    April 6, 2012

    The Bloomberg article referenced,
    says it all.
    Where I work, there are a fair number of technicians who got trained in the military (for experience they gained there,
    and relevant education, typically from non-profits); if applicants have a degree from one of the for-profits, we’d typically ask, weren’t you bright enough to get this education from your local community college (which also offers online courses)? (A problem, of course, is the decreasing state funding of community colleges, making it often hard to get the courses you want these days.).
    Googling e.g. “american military university scam” gives plenty of discussion forums with ringing endorsements by paid shills, and, sad to say, former students, who probably did try hard, now have to emotionally defend their investment in time and a degree there. (Undoubtedly, even in bad institutions, there are some qualified people, fallen on hard times or augmenting their income, and students who try hard and do not know any better.) But, in their ‘Space Science’ program, requiring ‘college algebra’ (instead of calculus) for their Orbital Mechanics class (or something like that), and having at least 2 ‘Doctors of Chiropractic’ on their advertised faculty, seems not to inspire confidence. —
    One also should note that accreditation is very much a formal process (Do you have a mission statement in place? Are your buildings not about to fall down and kill your students? Did you recently pay your staff?….) and relies much on self-reporting (Yes, our professors are all happy on minimum wage, [after we fired the others]).

  11. Judy

    December 1, 2012

    Recent media and federal investigations have brought the issue into the spotlight. Whether you are a student of an online university, or looking to teach for one, the question must be raised, “Is my university a valid one or a scam? The most important thing is accreditation. Ask the university to identify whether they are regionally accredited, and if so, by which accrediting body. Then visit the web site for the regional accrediting body and look up your college/university in their listing of accredited institutions.

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