UMUC's military chief talks about big TA cuts

Best for Vets: UMUC vice president for military partnerships Jim Cronin talks about a steep decline the school has seen in students using military tuition assistance.

Comparing Defense Department information with prior-year data, all services tallied fewer TA students, with the Army accounting for most of the drop at more than 21 percent.

The overall decrease is double the fiscal 2014 decline that DoD reported to colleges and the military services in January.

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Military Times talked to the colleges that enroll the most TA students. Those schools blame the decline on the varied and complex new restrictions the military branches have added to their TA programs,

A total of 294,200 students used TA in fiscal 2014, according to information provided by the Defense Department in response to a Military Times request.

Adding in the Coast Guard, tracked separately under the Homeland Security Department, brings the total to just over 298,000, a big drop from fiscal 2013's figure of more than 355,000.

For many schools — including some of the biggest TA players — this year's analysis shows drops of 15 percent, 25 percent, 35 percent and more in TA enrollment compared to fiscal 2013.

Schools contacted by Military Times confirmed experiencing such drops.

"There's no doubt about it, management controls have had a direct impact, because people before who were able to register now can't," said Jim Cronin, the vice president of military partnerships vice president at University of Maryland University College.

UMUC, which led the University System of Maryland to being the nation's second-biggest TA institution, experienced a 25 percent drop in its TA student population, according to the fiscal 2014 data provided to Military Times as well as posted on the DoD's new "TA DECIDE" web tool.

DoD reported a much higher number of TA users in January — "341K" at the national Council of College and Military Educators conference — and recently described the earlier report as a "snapshot in time," according to a DoD spokesman.

In an unprecedented decision, DoD officials cited "privacy concerns" in referring Military Times' customary request for service-by-service, school-by-school data through the Freedom of Information Act process.

TA roadblocks

Even the top officials in charge of military-related operations at the country's two largest TA schools — American Military University and UMUC — have trouble keeping track of all the new rules and restrictions for TA instituted over the past couple of years, they said. And they doubt that the typical TA user is having an easier time of it.

"In a lot of ways, they're just throwing up their arms and saying, 'I'm not going to use it,' " said John Aldrich, AMU's vice president of military relations, who added that the services have "put so many roadblocks or hurdles in place."

Aldrich expressed concern that such restrictions not only could lead service members to feel they "have been disenfranchised [from] the benefit that they feel they've earned," but the new rules also could have negative impacts on the military as a whole.

"The whole point of voluntary education is to improve operational readiness and obtain quality service members," he said.

UMUC's Cronin said the big drops in use could force some schools with smaller TA populations out of the TA market entirely.

"As things go by and become more difficult, there's less choice," Cronin said. "Military people need to have choices."

Fewer than 130,000 soldiers used TA in fiscal 2014, a drop of nearly 22 percent, or some 36,000 soldiers, compared with fiscal 2013. As a result, the Army is, by itself, responsible for most of the overall TA drop of more than 57,000 students.

The Army barred soldiers with less than a year of service from TA starting partway through fiscal 2014, limited graduate courses to "careerists" with 10 years or more, and tied eligibility to physical fitness and height/weight criteria among other rules.

But all the services were down. The Marine Corps shed more than 17 percent of its TA users from 2013 to 2014, while the Coast Guard cut its TA users by more than half.

The Coast Guard decrease "is primarily due to recent changes in eligibility criteria and a new member cost-share policy, which lowered participants, courses and dollar amounts," Lt. Cmdr. Lisa Garcez said in an email.

All other military branches either failed to respond to Military Times' inquiry or referred questions to DoD, whose officials did not provide information pertaining to the individual services' policies.

As for UMUC, Cronin said the school's TA population has recovered somewhat from the enormous apparent-TA drop in 2014.

"We just about bottomed out," he said.

Cronin also identified military drawdowns as an explanation for the reduction in TA use. "You're downsizing the military; you're kind of upsizing the [veteran] population," he said.

Fiscal 2014 increases in Post-9/11 GI Bill use according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Photo Credit: John Bretschneider/Staff

GI Bill growth, concerns

Accordingly, growth in the number of Post-9/11 GI Bill students continues unabated.

The undisputed champ of the Post-9/11 GI Bill market: University of Phoenix.

The for-profit behemoth enrolled some 49,000 students using the benefit in fiscal 2014, according to VA data. That's more than twice as many as the entire California Community Colleges system, which came in second.

Phoenix also raked in more than $344 million from those students' GI Bill benefits, a number nearly as high as the money taken in by the second-, third-, fourth- and fifth- most popular institutions combined. Nos. 4 and 5 on that list, also for-profit conglomerates, each took in nine figures' worth of GI Bill money as well.

Recent reports have questioned the University of Phoenix's marketing practices.

In response, Capitol Hill's foremost for-profit critic, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., has called for an investigation.

"The University of Phoenix is a for-profit company that makes much of its money off of service members and veterans, including $1.2 billion in GI Bill benefits alone since 2009," he wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Ash Carter.

"In return, the company offers degrees of questionable value, below-average graduation rates, and a student loan default rate almost forty percent higher than the national average."

Garland Williams, the school's vice president of military relations, said the school makes significant efforts to serve its military and veteran students well.

As part of that effort, Phoenix has a service quality watchdog division that listens to 300,000 taped calls per week to ensure that students are given accurate and helpful information, he said.

"We take it seriously," Williams said. "It's the right thing to do."

Still, the differences in cost can be stark.

Among the 50 most popular Post-9/11 GI Bill schools, public colleges and universities enrolled slightly more students than for-profits. Yet the for-profits on the list took in more than twice as much money as the public schools.

Graduation regalia worn by veterans graduating from American Public University System, including American Military University, on June 13, 2015. Brian Mullins Photography courtesy of American Military University
Graduation regalia worn by veterans graduating from American Public University System, including American Military University, on June 13, 2015. Brian Mullins Photography courtesy of American Military University

Graduation regalia worn by veterans graduating from American Public University System, including American Military University, during this spring's graduation.

Photo Credit: Stephen Bobb/Brian Mullins Photography via American Military University

A notable exception: For-profit American Military University took in less Post-9/11 GI Bill money per student than many public schools, let alone its fellow for-profits.

In addition to its place as a top TA destination, the University System of Maryland, thanks largely to UMUC, was the third most popular university for Post-9/11 GI Bill users.

In fiscal 2014, the system increased its number of Post-9/11 GI Bill students by 7 percent over 2013 — yet simultaneously lowered its intake of Post-9/11 GI Bill dollars by 5.2 percent.