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NEWS | Dec. 4, 2012

Be careful when choosing higher education programs

By 1st Lt. Joe Trovato Wisconsin National Guard

MADISON, Wis. - Soldiers looking to take advantage of their education benefits and pursue higher education are bombarded by marketing from traditional and online schools – and fighting through the noise to find a quality institution can be a tall task.

Numerous publications each year aim to rank the most military friendly schools and programs. G.I. Jobs recently released its "2013 Guide to Military Friendly Schools," which lists as many as 40 schools in Wisconsin rated on financial benefits, flexibility, support, degree programs and accreditation.

But determining what schools serve Soldiers best is hard to quantify for the Wisconsin Army National Guard's Education Services Officer, Capt. Dustin Cebula, who said there is no single list that perfectly captures a school's friendliness to service members.

"In my opinion, there's not a great way – especially for the online schools – to be able to determine, 'Is this the right fit for me? Or is it a good school?'" Cebula said. "The amount of online schools has increased exponentially along with the fact that [schools] know these service members are eligible for these benefits."

In many cases, he said, schools that show up as military friendly on various catalogs or online rankings end up being the same schools from which he has to recoup money because a service member was not successful there. Many market to students with the promise of flexibility, benefits, and even free equipment.

"A [school] comes into the armory with aggressive marketing, signs them up, and [the service members] really weren't ready to start school," Cebula said.

In some cases, schools have even been barred from briefing at armories.

Soldiers and veterans have a host of education benefits at their disposal. Federal Tuition Assistance benefits, the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the Wisconsin Tuition Grant Reimbursement, and the State of Wisconsin's tuition remission program. With so many veterans returning home from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years, schools know there is money to be had.

"All of this money from the post-9/11 GI Bill program is going to all these schools with all their hands out," Cebula said. "Since the post-9/11 GI Bill, marketing to veterans has increased ten-fold. They're banging at the door to try to get into the armories ... because that money is there. Everybody is military friendly now.

"In my opinion, the true essence of military friendly needs to be re-evaluated."

Cebula's education services office advises Soldiers on the benefits they have available and how they can use them. When it comes to discussing individual schools, he relies heavily on word of mouth from students that have gone on to attend the state's various schools. Coming up with a better review system that holds schools accountable for the results they produce would go a long way in helping to determine which schools truly are military friendly, he said.

Online degree programs in particular give students a great deal of flexibility.

"They're flexible programs that understand how the military works, but some of the disadvantages to that that I've been seeing is that it almost provides too much flexibility," Cebula said. "Then the service member doesn't have enough structure to be able to stay with that class, which results in withdrawing or dropping them."

Some institutions do not hold accreditations that are advantageous. According to Cebula, Soldiers should seek out schools that hold regional accreditations, not national accreditations. Credits from nationally accredited schools are less likely to transfer over to other schools because they are often too general, he said. As a result, it is not uncommon for students to have to retake courses they already had.

Benefits advisors like Cebula also lack concrete information as far as success rates for military students attending individual schools. They have no compiled data that show the percentage of service members who landed jobs after school or even how many graduated from the programs they chose.

The has G.I. Jobs schools guide has an online database that compiles veteran reviews for some of the schools on its list, but very few actually have a review. In short, there is little accountability for some of these schools.

A new executive order signed by the president in April could help add a layer of accountability to the process. Executive Order 13607 mandates that schools accepting recipients of federal education benefits provide students with an education plan and designate a point of contact for academic and financial advising. It also called for the creation of an interagency centralized complaint system and requires schools to readmit service members and reservists if they are temporarily unable to attend class due to service requirements.

Cebula called the development "an excellent step in the right direction."

The education services office reaches out to Soldiers yearly at their readiness processing. Information is also available in the form of yearly education PowerPoint briefs provided to individual units. Wisconsin Soldiers can also visit the education services office at Joint Forces Headquarters in Madison for more information about what benefits are available.

Cebula cautioned that his office is not qualified to conduct guidance counseling or process G.I. Bill benefits. But he and his staff can help educate Soldiers on which benefits they have available and how to maximize them. When it comes to finding the right school or program, Cebula suggested doing due diligence and researching schools carefully before deciding to attend.