The Army has made big changes to its tuition assistance signup system in hopes of getting soldiers to make more thoughtful and perhaps better choices with TA, but some of the nation's largest TA schools are raising questions about the overhaul.
The new online tool, called Via, quizzes prospective TA students on their interests and needs, then combines that information with data from the Army and federal agencies. Based on this, Via recommends individualized career paths, degrees that will pave the way for such careers, and institutions where the Army thinks its soldiers should pursue those degrees.
Via is required for all new TA users or those changing degree plans, but Army officials stress that soldiers can ignore and override the recommendations. They say Via is a way to inform TA users while making them think about their goals and how TA can bring those goals closer.
"A lot of soldiers might pick a general studies degree. They might try to take the path that's the easiest and fastest way to get a degree without considering the long-term impact of picking a different degree that has a connection to a career or to improving their abilities while they're in the Army," said Pamela Raymer, director of the Army Continuing Education System.
"So that's the ultimate goal, is that they're picking the best degree and the best school for their needs."
While the system is currently limited to the Army, it was designed to allow other organizations, such as the other military services, to copy and implement it.
The colleges that TA users attend most frequently say they support getting more information to prospective students but are concerned with elements of Via's approach.
Some of the information Via uses to recommend colleges is not applicable to most TA users, and the system also factors in cost data that would affect the Army's bottom line but make no difference to soldiers.
Colleges also expressed concern that this digital tool may be used in place of counselors who provide the kind of help that a computer program cannot.
"I think those guidance counselors have helped hundreds of thousands of service members graduate. I'm one of them," said John Aldrich, associate vice president for military relations at American Military University. "It has been a working formula. I don't understand the necessity to introduce a [new] program."
30 minutes, 3 recommendations
The Army rolled out the Via program on Dec. 12. Since then, soldiers have used Via about 27,000 times, Army officials said.
Any soldier with a GoArmyEd account can try out Via. Even those who are not eligible for TA can use the recommendation features, though they won't be able to submit requests to take actual classes. Current TA users continuing a degree plan may use the system, though it's not required.
Only soldiers who are either signing up for TA for the first time, or who are changing their degree or institution, are required to use the system, the Army's Raymer said.
The time to complete the process varies but will typically be about 30 to 45 minutes, which can be done in multiple sessions.
The first key part is a questionnaire asking soldiers about their interests, whether they want their civilian careers to be related to their military jobs, how much money they want to make, their preferred working environment, their ideal learning setting and many other factors, according to Army officials.
The system analyzes the answers and suggests several possible career paths based on them, in ranked order. Soldiers can select one of these careers or pick a completely different job goal.
Either way, Via will then suggest degrees related to the chosen career field based on information from the Labor Department and the Education Department.
As part of this, the system factors in a student's education history. Since you can't earn more than one of the same degree level on TA, Via will recommend master's degrees if you already have your bachelor's, for instance.
Again, soldiers can select a suggested degree or input their own.
The degree selection page in the Army's Via tuition assistance portal suggests degrees related to the career a service member has chosen in the Via system.
Photo Credit: Army
Then Via gives soldiers a ranked list of schools offering such a degree, likely the most controversial aspect of the system.
Army officials that the rankings are based on five factors:
- Cost: Per-credit-hour tuition rates, weighted based on soldiers' expressed willingness to pay out of pocket.
- Education Department data on institutions: Graduation, retention and loan default rates.
- Army data on institutions: Course completion rates, average grade-point average, TA graduation rates, and course satisfaction survey scores recorded in the GoArmyEd system.
- Match with student ability: Soldier grade-point average and general technical scores compared with school selectivity measures, SAT and ACT scores.
- Match with student preference: Institution size, location, online learning possibilities, admissions criteria, credit-by-exam policies and military support services, as compared with a soldier's expressed preferences.
As part of the cost calculations, the system will rate schools differently even if they fall below the $250-per-credit-hour limit that determines whether soldiers would have to fork over their own money for classes. So while it wouldn't matter to an individual TA user whether a school charged $100 per credit hour or $225 per credit hour, as the soldier wouldn't pay out of pocket either way, Via would rate the less expensive school higher, all other things being equal, Army officials said.
What institutions found most objectionable was the use of Education Department data, such as the graduation rate, which only measures full-time students going to school for the first time, while TA is a part-time benefit.
The colleges say their student bodies are hardly reflected in the criteria they're required to report to the Education Department — the information being used in Via and other government-issue college calculators.
"Theoretically, or concept-wise, [establishing Via] makes perfect sense to me," said Jim Cronin, a vice president at University of Maryland University College. But "it just seems ludicrous that we're looking at first-time, full-time ... to make decisions for people who are obviously part-time [students]."
At UMUC, the nation's second-largest TA school, first-time full-time students accounted for about 3 percent of students in 2014.
Raymer acknowledged that these traditional measures can fall short when applied to military students, but she pointed out that Via also considers military-specific GoArmyEd data.
"It's obviously very problematic, but that's why we have really that separate set of data on soldier school outcomes," she said.
Cronin and AMU's Alrdich noted potential problems within the GoArmyEd data as well. Aldrich said Via can be "overly complicated" for some soldiers, noting that a few have contacted him directly to say so.
Still, he praised the effort and said he saw potential for Via, alongside existing Army counselors and education specialists, to help soldiers make smart education decisions.
"I think Via is a valuable tool and can be — as long as it's not the only tool that's relied upon," Aldrich said.
Cronin expressed a similar view, noting that UMUC has developed and is working to improve its own career and education planning system similar to Via.
"We're actually ourselves knowing that we need to have career planning tools up front," Cronin said.