09 January 2010

PSA Regarding On-Line Courses

(H/T Tom Ricks and Kayla Williams)

I thought I'd pass along this article from Business Week regarding the plethora of online universities which advertise their services to military service members. I know I have quite a few friends who are looking at earning online degrees while in Iraq or Afghanistan--some of whom are looking at using their degree either to earn promotion points or to get a job after they leave the military.

While not all online programs are bad (I am told schools such as Norwich and Harvard offer decent online courses), there are plenty of programs which do not come from accredited universities. Some of these "schools"--which offer "associates' degrees" in fewer than six weeks--sound more like the shady car dealers and payday loan organizations which prey on Soldiers. Caveat Emptor. An excerpt:
Taxpayers picked up $474 million for college tuition for 400,000 active-duty personnel in the year ended Sept. 30, 2008, more than triple the spending a decade earlier, Defense Dept. statistics show. While degrees from any accredited college provide a boost toward military promotion, credentials from online, for-profit schools can be less helpful in getting civilian jobs, especially in a tight labor market. "I'm afraid that the ease with which these outfits hand out diplomas is matched only by the disappointment of their graduates when they find out how little their degrees are actually worth," says Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers in Washington, which includes members from both nonproft and for-profit colleges.
Mike Shields, a retired Marine Corps colonel and human resources director for U.S. field operations for Schindler Elevator, the North American arm of Switzerland's Schindler Group, says he rejects about 50 military candidates each year for the company's management development program because their graduate degrees come from online for-profits. "We don't even consider them," Shields says. "For the caliber of individuals and credentials we're looking for, we need what we feel is a more broadened and in-depth educational experience." He does hire service members with online degrees for jobs on nonleadership tracks, he says.
Most online for-profits, such as American Public Education's (APEI) American Military University, "do a very good job taking care of students," says Robert Songer, director of lifelong learning at Camp Lejeune. American Military and its counterpart American Public University recently won a national award for quality in online education. But Songer says several schools have become a concern on military bases because of practices that exploit soldiers and the federal subsidies they are promised. "Some of these schools prey on Marines," he says. "Day and night, they call you, they e-mail you. These servicemen get caught in that. Nobody in their families ever went to college. They don't know about college."
Executives at for-profit colleges say they pay more attention to customer service than traditional schools do, and their online format suits military students who move frequently. "It's about flexibility and options," says Rick Cooper, vice-president for military and corporate programs at Columbia Southern University in Orange Beach, Ala. "You can enroll any day of the week, any week of the year." That's not the only allure. Columbia Southern allows soldiers to transfer credits from other institutions for classes in which they earned grades as low as D. Grantham University in Kansas City, Mo., has handed out free laptops, and American Military in Charles Town, W.Va., gives free textbooks as recruitment inducements.
Online schools such as American Military have relocated their headquarters to obtain certification from regional boards with less demanding standards, according to interviews with for-profit-college officials and accrediting agencies. Or they're approved by less established organizations, leaving students hard-pressed to transfer credits to other colleges.

The last few paragraphs are loaded with even more sketchy behavior:

Career Blazers charged $4,500—the maximum that the military reimburses in a year—for self-paced lessons on how to perform basic computer applications or balance checkbooks. Because much of the material was available for less expense at workshops or community college classes on bases, "the military overpaid for laptops," says Johanna Rose, an education technician at Camp Lejeune. Relocated to Martinsburg, W.Va., and renamed Martinsburg Institute, Career Blazers stopped giving away laptops three months ago. Its tuition assistance from the Marine Corps slipped to $616,000 in fiscal 2009 as education officials on some Marine bases discouraged service members from enrolling. "I was too successful, too quickly," Viboch says.
Unauthorized marketing pitches by for-profit recruiters have become widespread on military bases. "Some of these schools are a little underhanded," says Pat Jeffress, branch manager of lifelong learning at Camp Pendleton, a Marine base in California. "They try to backdoor me."
One recruiter for Ashford University, a unit of Bridgepoint Education, recently ignored the anti-solicitation rule at Camp Lejeune, says Songer. He says he told the recruiter, whose husband is in the military, that she could only meet students at the base's education center. Instead, she pitched the online for-profit in the recreation room of a barracks for wounded Marines. About 30 Marines showed up, says Brad Drake, a corporal who attends Ashford. "It helped she was really attractive," says Drake, 23, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in Afghanistan when a rocket hit his truck. "That got everyone's attention."
The recruiter spoke at the barracks with the approval of the unit's commander, says Bridgepoint spokeswoman Shari Rodriguez. "We keep our students' needs at the forefront of all we do." Songer says unit commanders are often unfamiliar with educational rules, and that he told the recruiter: "'If you cross that line again, you'll never be allowed on this base."
About 8 to 10 wounded Marines signed up with Ashford after the recruiter's presentation, among them Corporal Long. Besides his brain injury, he has nerve damage and walks with a cane. Long is pursuing a bachelor's degree in organizational management at Ashford. In his first class, students could retake the final test until they passed, he says. "I took it 10 times," he says. "I kept getting the same answers wrong."
Long is married and says he needs to provide for his family. Still, he wonders if he can graduate. "I got my doubts," he says. "My family's more important than my doubts. That keeps me going."

On the other hand, while many service members are getting poor service from the online colleges, some Ivy League schools are shunning their previous Vietnam-era anti-military bias and are opening the gates to hundreds of veterans. Today's New York Times reports:

More than 300,000 veterans and their dependents are enrolled in American institutions of higher education, their numbers swelling as a result of a new, more generous version of the G.I. Bill that Congress passed in 2008. The veterans and their federal benefits are being embraced by community colleges and huge campuses like the University of Texas, as well as by online schools like the University of Phoenix.
They are bringing to the esoteric world of academia the ballast of the most real of real-world experiences, along with all the marks of the military existence, from crew cuts to frayed nerves to a platoon approach to social life.
Perhaps nowhere is this new wave more striking than at Columbia, which more than any other Ivy League institution has thrown out a welcome mat for returning servicemen and women. There are 210 veterans across the university, integrating a campus whose image-defining moment in the past half-century was of violent protests against the Vietnam War.
The campus still tilts heavily to the left, with many students displaying the arty, jaded aura befitting their Manhattan surroundings. But now, students largely welcome the vets, who are both admired and considered something of a curiosity.
The veterans in the undergraduate program attend classes side by side with fresh-faced 18-year-olds, but do not often socialize with them, preferring to gather instead at their own watering hole. In contrast to their classmates, many — though certainly not all — lack stellar high school records, which is what propelled some of them to the military in the first place.

The rest of the article in the NYT is excellent, and brings up some interesting points. Sooner or later, all Soldiers will leave the military and start looking for jobs. For many of these jobs, they will need a diploma--one which employers will value. How do we ensure that we give our troops the best possible opportunities when they eventually depart the military? As an added note, we, as leaders, need to be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of online schools, so that we can ensure that our Soldiers are not throwing their GI benefits away...

Fun fact (H/T NPR Online): I've often believed that the Montgomery GI Bill was one of the best projects America ever undertook, right along side of the Louisiana Purchase and the Interstate Highway System. Did you know that fourteen Nobel Prize winners, three presidents, three Supreme Court justices, a dozen senators and two dozen Pulitzer Prize winners received their education through the GI Bill?


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