Veterans Failing Shows Hazards of For-Profit Schools in GI Bill

Iraq War Veteran Chris Pantzke
Chris Pantzke, an Iraq war veteran, poses for an official army portrait. Source: Chris Pantzke via Bloomberg

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, Virginia 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 U.S. 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.

Phoenix, Kaplan

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 U.S. 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.

Growing Scrutiny

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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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

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.

For-profit colleges including the Art Institute of Pittsburgh’s on-line division discount tuitions or waive application fees for veterans and service members, and have teams of recruiters who specialize in enrolling them.

Psychologists who treat veterans say that attending online rather than campus-based programs can delay adjustment to civilian life, especially for the 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

‘Socially Isolated’

“It may feel more comfortable in the short run to sit at home, but in the long run it’s problematic for the veteran with PTSD to be socially isolated,” said William Brim, a U.S. Air Force psychologist from 1997 to 2007 and deputy director of the Center for Deployment Psychology in Bethesda, Maryland, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Defense.

“This notion of folks remaining isolated at home flies in the face of the whole movement” to help them reintegrate into communities, said Barbara Van Dahlen, a clinical psychologist who runs a national organization of therapists providing free mental health services to veterans and their families.

Veterans often opt for online programs because they feel out of place on traditional campuses with professors whose political views may offend them and with younger classmates unfamiliar with the reality of war, Van Dahlen said.

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.

Avoiding Anxiety

Pantzke, 41, says he chose the Art Institute of Pittsburgh’s online division because he thought he would be too anxious in a crowded classroom and he had briefly attended an Art Institute campus in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, from 1988 to 1989.

He told Art Institute officials when he enrolled that he had post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, Pantzke said. He was told that it wouldn’t be a problem and the institute had services available, he said. The institute didn’t assess how his disabilities would affect his academic performance, he said.

When Pantzke, a former sergeant, contacted the institute before his medical discharge from the Army, its response was, “’Okay, let’s start the paperwork,” he said. “It was fast and furious.”

Bullet Burn

Pantzke graduated from high school in Marshall, Minnesota 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.

When he can’t figure out an assignment, he rages. His wife, Rene, “takes the brunt of it,” he said. “I lash out at those closest to me.”

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.

School’s Response

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.

“I just thought the school would help more,” said Rene Pantzke.

In the short autobiography that students are required to post for each course, Pantzke discloses his disabilities.

“School for me is a real struggle because I do not learn like any other student,” he wrote for one course. “It takes me a while to understand what is going on.”

This profile “should be a signal for every teacher that reads it: This person needs extra help,” Rene Pantzke said. “They just don’t get it. They don’t make any accommodation.”

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’s Stake

Goldman Sachs Group Inc., 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 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.

Federal Followup

“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 VA helps them fill out paperwork and gives them money, but it doesn’t tell them what schools to avoid or go to. It doesn’t track how well these schools are doing.”

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.

Community Colleges

Veterans have other educational options. While some public colleges don’t track veterans on campus or know how many are enrolled, others cater to them with veterans-only classes and centers. Sierra College, a community college in Rocklin, California, encourages veterans to write about their military experience in a “Boots to Books” class. Veterans’ enrollment has doubled in two-and-a-half years, said Catherine Morris, Sierra veterans’ counselor.

Former Marine Corps sergeant Eddie Black is seeking a philosophy degree at a public campus, Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. Class discussions on the morality and literature of warfare “were better than therapy for me,” said Black, a veteran of both Iraq wars and a sergeant in the Oregon National Guard.

The flow of GI Bill money to online for-profit colleges helps these colleges comply with a 1992 law that caps at 90 percent the proportion of their revenue they can receive from federal aid. Tuition paid to for-profit colleges under the GI bill doesn’t count toward the 90 percent ceiling, said Sarah Flanagan, who was the Senate’s specialist in federal student aid when the law passed.

Reshaping Society

The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 -- known as the GI Bill -- reshaped American society. It lifted hundreds of thousands of World War II veterans into the middle class through free college educations and low-cost loans to buy homes and businesses, and it democratized elite academic bastions such as Harvard and Yale. Fourteen Nobel Prize winners, three Supreme Court justices, three presidents, 91,000 scientists and 67,000 doctors went to college on the GI Bill, according to “Over Here: How the G.I. Bill Transformed the American Dream,” by Edward Humes (Houghton Mifflin, 2006).

Little remembered is how the landmark bill proved to be a boon to the for-profit colleges of another era. In the law’s first five years, more than 5,000 for-profit trade and vocational schools sprang up, many of questionable quality and catering exclusively to veterans, according to a federal report. Congress responded in 1952 by prohibiting for-profit schools from having more than 85 percent of their students paid for by Veterans Affairs.

Living Allowances

In framing the new GI Bill for post-9/11 veterans, Congress sought to discourage them from enrolling in online colleges. The law, which President Barack Obama co-sponsored as a senator, gives veterans a living allowance only if they attend a ground campus. Based on the college’s zip code, the stipend ranges from less than $1,000 a month in areas with low housing costs to $2,751 in Manhattan.

Legislators omitted Web-only programs out of concern that online for-profit colleges would open offices in cities with the highest housing allowances, said Eric Hilleman, former legislative director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The colleges could then lure veterans in Oklahoma or Arkansas by promising them a stipend based on prices in San Francisco or New York, he said.

‘Perfect Microcosm’

Congress also wanted to help today’s veterans reintegrate into society in the same way that the first GI Bill smoothed the transition for soldiers coming home for World War II.

“The campus environment is a perfect microcosm to help veterans readjust,” Hilleman said in an interview. “There’s a ready support network of mental health counseling and career counseling. It’s a strong way to welcome them home.”

Now, for-profit colleges are pushing Congress to change the law, arguing that it’s unfair to online students. Minneapolis-based Capella University urged service members and veterans on Facebook in June to contact legislators to support a housing allowance.

The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee approved a bill on Aug. 5 that would give online students a half-stipend. On the House side, a bill filed by Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Bob Filner, a California Democrat, to provide the same stipend for online and campus-based learners, has 30 co-sponsors.

“Everything we needed to have fall into place is falling into place,” said Patrick Campbell, legislative counsel for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a New York-based nonprofit group.

Drawn Shades

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 with a college course. He has picked at his skin until scabs riddle his right hand and arm.

“There’s been several days I’ve been frustrated so bad I’ve thrown my books around the house, I’ve verbally attacked my wife and son,” he said. “I’m just unbearable when I have one of my fits.”

Pantzke has been awarded more than $50,000 in financial aid since July 2009, about half of it from the new GI Bill, according to his records. His dissatisfaction boiled over in July in a required course, “Fundamentals of the Internet,” when students were asked how they would use absolute and relative pathnames for hyperlinking.

He posted on the bulletin board that he was “done” with the class.

By August, Pantzke logged into his classes so seldom that the school considered him to have withdrawn, he and Muller said. Now, while Pantzke has re-enrolled at the institute, he may transfer to a traditional public campus with in-person tutoring and counseling.

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