In press releases and ads, colleges love boasting they're "military friendly" and "veterans friendly" — and that isn't just because veterans are usually good students and campus leaders.
It's also because the newly expanded Post 9/11 G.I. Bill will pay colleges of all types around $9 billion this year to educate nearly 600,000 veterans, and virtually every school wants to expand its slice of that pie.
But some schools touting their spots on proliferating lists of "military friendly" colleges found in magazine guides and websites have few of the attributes educators commonly associate with the claim, such as accepting military credits or having a veterans organization on campus. Many are for-profit schools with low graduation rates.
The designations appear on rankings whose rigor varies but whose methods are under fire. Often, they're also selling ads to the colleges. Some websites help connect military and veteran students with degree programs that may match their interests, but don't disclose they are lead aggregators paid by the institutions — often for-profit colleges — whose programs they highlight.
"They're not real rankings," said Tom Tarantino, a veteran who is deputy policy director of the advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "What they are is advertisement catalogs." Labeling them "a huge problem," he called for standards to be established for proper use of the term "military friendly" schools.
There are signs something like that may happen. But as with the U.S. News & World Report college rankings, demand for signaling devices to help consumers shortcut complicated choices could make such lists tough to dislodge. Many experts say the lists are symptoms of a wider problem: Service members aren't getting the advice they need to make sound decisions on using the substantially expanded education benefits. It's no surprise businesses are stepping into that void.
At a large military education conference last month in Florida, some educators criticized the lists and pushed for a sharpened definition of "military friendly" colleges to be developed either by the federal government or an education coalition called Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges.
Meanwhile, Washington is paying increasing attention to the broader problem of veterans getting reliable guidance. In recent weeks, a slew of bills on the subject have surfaced.
The latest, unveiled Tuesday by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is called the "G.I. Bill Consumer Awareness Act" and would push colleges and the Department of Veterans Affairs to disclose more information on questions like licensing and job placement rates, and to develop policies to prevent misleading marketing.
Another bill would boost education counseling resources at the department, and separately, 14 senators have asked the department to trademark the term "G.I. Bill" so it will have more power to crack down on misleading advertising.
"It's not only these major lists, but all of these pay-to-play websites that come up with these nefarious rankings," said Jim Sweizer, vice president of military programs at American Public University System. APUS operates two for-profit online universities, American Military University and American Public University. Founded in 1991 by a former Marine, it calls itself the largest provider of education to the military, with two-thirds of its nearly 110,000 students in the Reserves, active duty, or veterans. But last year it boycotted the best-known "military friendly" list, published by G.I. Jobs magazine, saying the system had too many shortcomings.
"The people who suffer from this are the service members who don't know any better," Sweizer said. "They see an ad that says, 'No. 1 ranked school,' but they don't say, 'by whom?'"
Officials at other institutions say they don't like the lists but can't afford not to be on them, for fear of appearing "military unfriendly."
"Some schools feel 'I'm damned if I do, damned if I don't," said Ramona McAfee, assistant dean of military and federal programs at Columbia College in Missouri, a critic of the lists whose school still participates.
But for some lesser-known colleges, such lists can get their names in front of prospective students — which, they say, expands veterans' horizons. Last year, when G.I. Jobs magazine published its list, a flurry of colleges shared the news in press releases, and local newspapers often followed with stories.
"We certainly aren't going to change the landscape of our campus by seeking out tons of veterans but we wanted to make sure we were giving them every opportunity and making this transition easier for them," said Sarah Palace, assistant dean for adult enrollment at one school that put out such a release, the College of Notre Dame in Ohio (not to be confused with the larger University of Notre Dame in Indiana, which also put out a release). The smaller Notre Dame has only about 20 full-time veteran students but hopes to recruit more. Palace listed practices she says make the place military friendly: encouraging transfers, examining military transcripts and working with a local veterans service center.
It's impossible to say whether veterans are widely misled by "military friendly" lists. Some educators say it's patronizing to suppose military people read the lists uncritically.
But there are worrisome signs that, more broadly, veterans aren't making informed decisions and could waste their benefits on low-value degrees. While for-profit colleges may be a good choice for many, on average they cost more, have lower graduation rates and in some cases have accreditation limitations. They also recruit aggressively. In the first two years after the new G.I. Bill was passed in 2008, they enrolled 25 percent of veterans using the benefits and collected 37 percent of the payments to colleges.
After former Marine Cpl. Moses Maddox finished his first tour of duty in Iraq, he started — and ended — his college search with an Internet query.
"I looked up 'GI Bill friendly schools' and it said 'hey, come to the University of Phoenix,'" Maddox said. He won't single out Phoenix, which collected $133 million from the G.I. Bill in 2010-2011, but it wasn't a good fit, and he later dropped out, re-enlisted and returned to Iraq. After his second tour, he enrolled in Palomar College in California, but discovered his Phoenix credits wouldn't transfer. He now gives education counseling to veterans at Palomar.
They're "just so lost after getting out that they just show up with a DD214 (military service record) and say, 'I want to go to school. How do I start?'" he said. When the benefit's 36-month expiration passes and they're stuck with credits they didn't realize were worthless, "it's the hardest part of my job to tell these vets you have to start all over again."
The G.I. Jobs "Guide to Military Friendly Colleges" is probably the best known list, with annual circulation of 135,000 and reaching more through its website, militaryfriendlyschools.com.
The publication insists it's far more rigorous than the apparently fly-by-night options that show up for pages in response to a Google search for "military friendly colleges."
G.I. Jobs sends questionnaires to 8,000 institutions, says it gets about half back, and lists the 1,500 most military friendly (it claims that's the top 20 percent, though of the responses, it's more than one-third).
Unlike others, G.I. Jobs does share the general formula used to select military friendly colleges: 45 percent in one "effort" category, measuring things like flexible learning programs and academic credit, 35 percent for financial effort (including tuition benefits and the percentage of recruiting budget directed to veterans),15 percent for results (such as percentage of military students enrolled) and 5 percent for a category that includes accreditations.
"We're the most stringent and transparent out there," said Sean Collins, who directs the publication for Victory Media. It has now begun surveying students about their experiences, and is beginning to include that data in its website, though it isn't used to determine which schools make the list. Collins said the magazine consults an advisory board of veterans education professionals on the survey questions.
Yet while G.I. Jobs discloses its general formula, and its website offers extensive raw data with college responses, it doesn't disclose a cutoff score or quantify what it takes to make the "military friendly" cut.
Its list includes some schools that, the magazine's own charts reveal, check hardly any of the boxes that comprise the magazine's criteria for inclusion — for example the Academy of Cosmetology in Florida, which doesn't offer credit for military services, has no veteran-specific campus resources and where just three of the 75 students are veterans. Such schools may well be military friendly, but their inclusion raises questions about how 2,500 claimed respondents failed to make the cut. In print, the guide from a leading rival, Military Advanced Education (MAE) magazine's "Guide to Top Military-Friendly Colleges and Universities," says of its formula only that any college wishing consideration can submit answers to a questionnaire.
The magazine sent the questionnaire to 1,800 institutions and received 362 responses. Of those, 289, or about 80 percent, made the cut, said officials of the publication and its parent company, KMI Media Group.
Before this year, whether a school made the cut was up to editor Maura McCarthy, who reviewed the submissions and decided without using a point system.
"Maura had a good idea in her head as to what would make somebody military friendly," said Kirk Brown, publisher at KMI. This year, he said, it will move to a more objective system. "Each year that we've done this, we've attempted to raise the bar in terms of the criteria and our evaluation process."
Other sites that turn up on online searches, such as www.militaryfriendlycolleges.org, say nothing about their criteria. Typically they feature eclectic lists of colleges and sometimes ads for for-profit schools. An email sent via the "Contact Us" portion of that site went unanswered, as did a telephone call to the California phone number where the website is registered.
In fact, critics say, there's no right way to quantify whether a college is military friendly; a subjective judgment, like MAE's, may actually be more appropriate if well-researched. The objections are to false precision, and the criteria used.
Factors like whether a college offers online courses or gives credit for military work can be important. Still, few highly selective colleges offer course credit for military work; that doesn't mean they don't welcome veterans, said Jim Selbe, who has worked for decades in veterans education and is now an administrator at the University of Maryland University College, a large military education provider.
A small school, meanwhile, could have few veterans, no veterans "club," and few resources just for veterans — yet still be very welcoming culturally, just as a large school with lots of resources on paper might not.
Selbe says none of the current designators of "military friendly" colleges are transparent enough that students should rely on them to make a decision. His advice: Spend time talking to a well-qualified academic adviser, to pick a school that's a good fit in terms of culture and expected outcomes.
"There are just too many variables in that decision to make it on a school being recognized by a publisher as military or veteran friendly," he said.
Maddox, the former Marine, advises students to go straight to www.gibill.va.gov and avoid any site mentioning veterans or the GI Bill ending with ".com."
Most critics would find the lists unobjectionable — even valuable — if they presented themselves simply as resources for information, and dropped the claim to identify who is "military friendly."
One site, Military.com, has done just that, and stopped using the term "military friendly."
"We stepped back and looked at it, and said the loose criteria we've allowed to become this term 'military friendly' isn't serving our members," said managing editor Terry Howell. "We can't make that promise, that guarantee, that that's going to be the service member's experience."