Vets' failing shows hazards of for-profit schools in GI Bill
Chris Pantzke suffered a brain injury from a car bomb while serving in the Iraq War. Determined to get new skills and make a living after returning home, he joined more than 300,000 veterans taking advantage of a new GI Bill offering college tuition.
These days, Pantzke, who has post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, yells at his wife and punches the wall when he can't understand his homework assignments. He enrolled last year in the online division of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, owned by the for-profit college company Education Management Corp. His veteran's benefit and other federal aid pay the $20,000-plus annual tab.
Working alone on a computer in his Prince George, Va., apartment, Pantzke has failed seven of 18 courses and dropped two others. The school rejected his pleas for face-to-face tutoring and simpler homework instructions, he said.
"I stare at the screen and fume and fume," Pantzke, 41, said in an interview. "I'm kind of regretting my decision."
Since the post-9/11 GI Bill with expanded education benefits for returning soldiers took effect Aug. 1, 2009, for- profit colleges have snared $618 million, or 35 percent, of the almost $1.8 billion in tuition and fees spent by U.S. taxpayers, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The industry, which has tripled revenue in the past decade to almost $30 billion by taking advantage of federal loans and grants, is now targeting the more than 1.2 million war veterans deployed since 2001 in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their rich college grants.
Five of the top 10 colleges with the most students funded by the GI bill in April, 2010 were for-profit, mainly on-line institutions, including Phoenix-based Apollo Group Inc.'s University of Phoenix, Washington Post Co.'s Kaplan University, and San Diego-based Bridgepoint Education Inc.'s Ashford University, according to data from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Of veterans receiving the new benefits, 22 percent have enrolled in for-profit colleges, including Assistant Veterans Affairs Secretary Tammy Duckworth, a disabled Iraq veteran who goes to Capella Education Co.'s online Capella University. About 10 percent of all college students attend for-profit institutions.
Enrolling at online colleges hampers veterans' reintegration into society and increases their risk of dropping out, said John Schupp, national director of the nonprofit group Supportive Education for the Returning Veteran, which has helped establish veterans-only courses at 10 public campuses nationwide.
"They don't transition sitting next to a computer in their room," Schupp said in a telephone interview.
While some veterans with families and jobs say online schools provide an opportunity for advanced education that they otherwise couldn't fit into their schedules, the swelling number of ex-soldiers at for-profit colleges is drawing scrutiny from the Senate education committee, which plans a hearing on the issue later this year. That's because these colleges, which typically charge higher tuitions than public institutions, have been criticized by federal officials and members of Congress for enrolling students who aren't academically ready and are more likely to default on their federal loans.
An undercover investigation by the Government Accountability Office, whose results were released in a report on Aug. 4, found that recruiters at for-profit colleges encouraged applicants to lie on federal financial aid forms and misled them by exaggerating graduation rates and potential salaries. The Department of Education is proposing regulations that would crack down on the practice of paying recruiters on the basis of the number of students they enroll.
Graduation rates for bachelors' degrees are much lower at for-profit colleges than at other institutions of higher education. Only 22 percent of first-time, full-time candidates at for profit-colleges get their bachelors' degrees, compared with 55 percent at public institutions and 65 percent at nonprofit schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Veterans and active-duty service members prefer online for- profit colleges because the education is "focused, 'military- friendly,' disciplined, and open to nontraditional students," said Harris N. Miller, president of the Career College Association, a Washington-based trade group representing for-profit colleges.
Pantzke graduated from high school in Marshall, Minn., and became a factory worker, making floating docks and living from one paycheck to the next. He joined the Army in 2004 and was deployed in Iraq in 2005-2006, he said. He was injured late in 2005, when a bomb exploded 125 meters away from him.
"It's like a bullet burn," he said. "When the wave blast goes through your body, it shakes loose the receptors. The nerves don't fire quite right."
Because of his brain injury, Pantzke has trouble following complex instructions, and needs them broken down step-by-step, he said. The institute's accelerated schedule - each course lasts six weeks - leaves him struggling to keep pace, he said.
"If they're going to offer online courses to veterans, they need to provide better services," Pantzke said.
Pantzke, who would like to get a degree in photography, almost dropped out in February, changing his mind after instructors promised more help. In March, he asked for in-person tutoring and homework that was easier to understand.
A school official responded to Pantzke that "we are not able to provide face-to-face tutoring" and that simplified assignments are "typically not considered a reasonable accommodation at the college level," according to a subsequent e-mail to him from Sarah White, assistant director of student affairs.
The school's staff "has worked consistently over the past 14 months to address" Pantzke's concerns, Jacquelyn Muller, EDMC's spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. The institute "offers extensive and flexible tutoring services to students at no charge," she said.
Goldman Sachs, the New York-based bank holding company, owns 38 percent of the institute's parent company, Pittsburgh-based Education Management. The online division has about 13,000 undergraduates, and 27 percent of its students graduate, Muller said. It has a team of recruiters, financial aid representatives, and academic advisers dedicated to active-duty service members and veterans, "all trained in and focused on meeting your unique needs as a military student," according to its website.
While President Barack Obama pledged to make improving the efficiency of veterans' services a top priority in a 2009 speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, his administration doesn't track their college graduation or job placement rates. Even as Veterans Affairs spending on education benefits more than doubled this year to about $9.6 billion, the department stopped auditing the colleges it funds from September 2009 to June 2010.
"The VA doesn't do a good job of followup," Schupp said. "When these guys get out of the military, they're told to check with the VA. They don't know who else to trust. "
The Veterans Affairs department's role is to administer benefits, not to recommend one college over another, said Keith Wilson, director of its education service.
"We don't delve into what a veteran believes is the best mode or location to receive his education benefits," Wilson said.
The agency is committed to unearthing any waste or fraud in the use of education benefits, Wilson said. While it had to reassign auditors last fall to process claims under the new GI bill, "we didn't like making that decision," Wilson said.
These days, Pantzke keeps the shades drawn in the rented mobile home in southern Virginia he shares with his wife, 18- year-old son, and two cats. He spends most of his time in a living-room armchair, where he works on the computer during the day and sleeps at night. There's a fist-sized hole in the wall near the armchair; he punched it in a moment of frustration.