Recent Demise of For-Profit Colleges Opens Up Opportunities to Recruit Veterans

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At many Ivy League and other elite colleges, the number of veterans admitted to the student body can be counted on one hand. Tim Hsia, co-founder of Service to School, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that helps veterans apply to college, cites three reasons for their low numbers: a lack of recruitment of veterans by these institutions, veterans’ mindset, and not enough encouragement by the U.S. Department of Defense to apply to more select colleges.

[Above: Student veterans on the University of Alabama’s campus in Tuscaloosa]

A September 2016 New York Times column by Frank Bruni revealed that most top colleges don’t have veterans on their radar screen. Prompted by a question from a community college teacher at a presidential candidate forum, he discovered that, currently, Yale enrolls just four veterans, while Williams College and Princeton each enroll only one; a Harvard spokesperson refused to respond.

Despite the fact that the GI Bill covers 100 percent of tuition costs for up to four years, most veterans don’t apply to more elite institutions. Indeed, a segment on New York Public Radio station WNYC in January noted that the vast majority of veterans using GI Bill benefits enrolled at for-profit colleges.

Furthermore, for-profit schools tend to recruit veterans specifically for their GI Bill benefits. Many blame this circumstance on a loophole in the 90-10 rule, a law that limits for-profit schools to receiving 90 percent of their revenue from the federal government. Veteran and military education benefits were not included in this pool of funds, allowing for-profits to take advantage of this loophole to become 100 percent federally funded.

However, Hsia says that veterans are also partially to blame. He attributes their scarcity at most top-tier colleges to several factors, including low expectations. “Veterans leaving the service don’t know how good they are,” he says.  “Many come from a low socioeconomic background and are often the only person in their family to go to college. They don’t know the difference between DeVry and Duke.”

Therefore, many veterans end up attending for-profit colleges that are more interested in obtaining federal funds than in helping vets attain a bachelor’s degree or future employment. In fact, for-profit colleges have a terrible record when it comes to helping all students obtain degrees. While the six-year graduation rate for individuals at private colleges and public institutions is 65 percent and 58 percent, respectively, only 27 percent of private for-profit college students earn an undergraduate degree, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

In addition, a report released by the U.S. Department of Education shows that from 2013 to 2016, individuals attending for-profit schools accounted for 35 percent of student loan defaults while making up just 26 percent of all borrowers nationwide. And according to a report by the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP), between 2010 and 2015, the for-profit sector received 40 percent of post-9/11 GI Bill tuition benefits.

But the tide is turning against for-profit colleges. In August, The New York Times reported that “negative reports [have] eroded the industry’s popularity, leading enrollments to shrink substantially.” The U.S. witnessed the demise of two large for-profit college chains over the last couple years, with Corinthian Colleges filing for bankruptcy in 2015 and ITT Educational Services closing its doors after the federal government forbade it from enrolling new students who receive federal financial aid.

Hsia says schools like these lure veterans using intensive marketing practices. In fact, for-profit institutions typically spend more money on recruiting veterans than on educating them, according to the HELP report.

“They’ve done the most marketing. If you read Stars and Stripes or other military magazines, you don’t see ads for typical colleges, but you do for DeVry and ITT Educational Services,” he says. “And most veterans don’t know better and think a degree is a degree, and obviously that’s not true.”

According to Hsia, many college admission departments don’t know veterans or how they think, and they don’t understand the GI Bill or the difference between a Navy or Marine Corps veteran, a reservist, or someone on active duty. Since veterans constitute about 1 percent of all college applicants and many are older and considered nontraditional students, they’re often either misunderstood or overlooked.

Hsia’s organization Service to School matches veterans with a college based on their academic skills and career aspirations. “We look at their backgrounds and suggest that they apply to a fair number of top schools,” says Hsia. “It’s the job of the admission counselor to [say], ‘Here are your safe schools, your stretch schools, and here are the schools you’ll likely get into.’”

University of Alabama student veterans (left to right) Jeff Echevarrias, CJ Bennett, Ericka Sanders, Megan Talbott, and Sean Pribanic
University of Alabama student veterans (left to right) Jeff Echevarrias, CJ Bennett, Ericka Sanders, Megan Talbott, and Sean Pribanic

He would like to see the Department of Defense step up and do more to notify veterans of their college options and help them identify the right school. Also, he believes the department should encourage veterans to challenge themselves academically by applying to top-tier institutions.

The Office of the Under Secretary for Personnel and Readiness at the Department of Defense did not respond to requests for comment.

One of the slogans of the Air Force is “aim higher,” which Hsia says is a fitting description of what colleges and veterans need to do. “Students need to aim higher, and colleges need to take more risks with veterans. Instead of accepting a couple of veterans, why not accept four? Why not accept 10?” he says.

One college that has done an effective job of recruiting and supporting veterans is the University of Alabama (UA), which enrolled 543 in its fall 2016 class of 32,564 students.  Playing a large role in that success in its Office of Veterans and Military Affairs, which offers a one-stop shop to meet veterans’ needs. Assistance and resources provided by the office include a career center, work-study programs, tutoring, campus tours, information on benefits provided by the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs, and more.

David Blair
David Blair

“We facilitate an easy transition from military life to college life by counseling individuals, creating partnerships, and advising,” says David Blair, the director of Veterans and Military Affairs at UA.

Moreover, the office inspires veterans to feel connected on campus, not alienated, which Blair believes boosts retention. “Traditionally, a veteran will come to school, go to class, leave campus, go home, and not get involved. We try to form partnerships across campus with fellow students, such as [those in] law or business,” says Blair, a 25-year Army veteran.

Despite the fact that the GI Bill finances four years of tuition, most veterans need financial aid for living expenses and textbooks and must be steered toward applying for Pell Grants and student loans, Blair says.

He notes that most veterans were B or C students in high school and then gravitated into the military. Now, four or five years later, having been on tour in Afghanistan or Iraq, they are more worldly and know what they want in life. “They’ve grown so much from high school,” Blair says. “They’re now different people.”●

Gary M. Stern is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.