Pentagon targets substandard for-profit schools

A Defense Department official told a Senate subcommittee on Wednesday that the department is trying to stop the flow of federal money going to the tuition of active-duty troops enrolled in subpar for-profit schools.

Robert Gordon, deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy, testified before the Homeland Security's Federal Financial Management subcommittee. The hearing came on the heels of the release of a Government Accountability Office report that revealed the Pentagon had monitored only one-third of the schools where military personnel receiving the benefit were enrolled.

According to the report, $360 million from taxpayers paid tuition in 2009 to schools that did not have to prove their credibility to Defense. Gordon said those schools were mainly for-profit schools, which offered online courses that are convenient for troops to take while serving overseas. The only courses being monitored were what Gordon called "brick-and-motor" schools located on base.

Due to the neglect in monitoring online schools, the Pentagon ended its contract with its Department of Education-approved accreditation agency in December. Gordon told the subcommittee that a contract with a different agency will begin in October that will hold for-profit schools accountable for delivering education that meets GAO's recommendations.

Federal Financial Management Committee Chairman Thomas Carper, D-Del., said he is concerned about the gap between the contract periods when no schools will report students' performance and students will have no avenue for complaints. Gordon said the time is necessary to develop a system to properly accredit online schools.

Oversight of for-profit schools has been a priority of the Education Department and Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. Harkin told the committee that he hoped the additional oversight would help weed out some of the bad actors in the for-profit system who create dropouts, student debt, and ill-equipped graduates.

Some at the hearing felt a more stringent accreditation process posed a burden for for-profit schools, which have declined in enrollment and stock price following the proposal of the Education Department's Gainful Employment regulation. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., raised questions about the drafting of Gainful Employment and told the committee that the process should be investigated and "could land some at the Department of Education in jail."

Harold Jensen, manager of military operations at Virginia Colleges, a group of for-profit schools, attended the hearing and said he thinks the "current process is sufficient." Jensen said he is willing to comply with new standards for accreditation.

"The DOD can make their decision as to what it is they want to do," Jensen said. "They're the customer, and if they want additional oversight, we'll give it to them.

Unlike Gainful Employment, which has yet to be formally announced, the Pentagon has confirmed that they have found a new accreditation agency and are making plans to see that it fixes the flaws outlined by the GAO report.

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