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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.