For-Profit Colleges Educate the Military and Veterans | Commentary

Based on my experience as a commissioned officer in the United States Army Reserve and as a veteran of the Iraq and the Afghanistan wars, I feel that I have a deep understanding of what our service members, veterans and military families have sacrificed for this nation. This is why I am concerned that there is a concerted effort, on Capitol Hill and in the administration, to block access to for-profit colleges for active duty military and veterans.

As our nation continues the wind down of two wars, tens of thousands of men and women are leaving the service and will need to find jobs in the civilian job market. What is disconcerting, is that according to the Labor Department, about 9 percent of veterans who have served since 2001 are currently unemployed. That is about 4 points higher than the general population. Clearly, we need to be doing all we can to prepare these heroes for success and to thrive in civilian life.

For-profit colleges are important for current military members looking for new job skills or to hone their military training for the private sector. In reality, those serving in the military simply don’t have time to attend classes on a typical college campus. If they want to prepare themselves for the job market while they are still serving, they need distance or online programs that are often provided by for-profit colleges.

As much as we would all like our veterans to attend traditional, four-year universities, it is just not realistic. Many veterans do not desire the structured college environment, after having served years in a regimented setting. Older than other students, their life experiences — which could include multiple wartime deployments — are simply too distinct from those of the average 18-year-old who just a few months ago attended high school and lived with their parents. Other veterans don’t possess the educational background to be accepted by traditional universities in their hometowns. For those veterans with a family, night classes at a local community college or an online school are the most appropriate because they may need to work during the day.

While many state and community colleges are making strides, for-profit colleges also enjoy certain advantages over community colleges. Community colleges tend to focus on core subjects like history or math, which helps to prepare people for college. However, many for-profit colleges often specialize in specific trades that could appeal to ex-military — such as homeland security and law enforcement.

Let’s be clear, though. I am not naïve and understand that many for-profit colleges are bad actors. They leave students in debt and with little prospect of finding a well-paying job. Some for-profit colleges — with questionable educational standards — even specifically target military students and veterans to help them avoid federal funding formulas that try and prevent for-profits from making all of their money from student loans.

I support getting rid of these schools and finding ways to steer military and veterans away. I also applaud efforts to put these companies out of business. That is why I believe the Department of Education was correct to use hard-line tactics to eliminate Corinthian College.

But the critics of all for-profit colleges need to take a step back and accept the fact that just because a school is for-profit, that cannot be the lone determining factor of quality.

Legislators on Capitol Hill have taken exception with American Military University, which is a premier for-profit (U.S. News and World Report ranks their online bachelor’s degree as 34th best in the nation). Critics accuse the school of trying to mislead potential students into thinking that AMU is formally affiliated with the U.S. military. In an overabundance of caution, the school added to their website that they are not affiliated with the military. However, I find it a bit hard to believe that this would actually confuse a service member or a veteran. In reality, AMU’s name is no different than schools with names like the Virginia Military Institute.

As the administration and Congress weigh proposals to reign in the bad for-profits, they need to be sure that the current military and veterans have access to quality for-profits. If they don’t, they are only putting up roadblocks to helping those individuals thrive after their service.

Harold “Hank” Naughton, a major in the U.S. Army Reserve and veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives since 1995. He is chairman of the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security. The opinions expressed herein are his own and do not reflect any official position of the Department of Defense.