Military members need caution in choosing higher education schools
More Walworth County news
For breaking Walworth County news and hourly updates, visit the Facebook.com page throughout the day.
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 explained. "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 member] 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, including 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 explained. "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 shows the percentage of service members that landed jobs after school or even how many graduated from the programs they chose.
The 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, many of which gain greatly from the benefits provided to service members.
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.