Sarah Serrano, a veteran of the United States Marine Corps, got off to a rocky start when it came to pursuing a college degree.
“Over the past 10 years, I have come and gone at University of Phoenixes all over the country,” says Serrano, 31, who also bounced around various community colleges. “I have never received my bachelor’s, but I used my entire GI Bill benefits.”
For-profit colleges, like the University of Phoenix, have gained notoriety for their treatment of veteran and active-duty military students. When for-profit Corinthian Colleges collapsed earlier this year, students who’d used GI Bill benefits at those colleges were unable to reclaim them.
This past October, the Department of Defense put University of Phoenix on probation, which included restricting the for-profit’s access to military bases. Federal reports have described for-profit employees recruiting aggressively on and around military bases, even targeting hospitals and wounded warrior centers in an effort to enroll veterans.
Industry critics say for-profits aim to bypass a rule that limits the revenue they can earn from federal dollars, including federal student loans and grants. GI Bill benefits, which veterans use to help cover educational costs, don’t count against that limit.
Critics add that veterans at for-profits borrow more than they do at public and private nonprofit schools.
On the flip side, advocates argue that veterans find much needed flexibility in the for-profit sector. “Costs with veterans benefits are minimal, and the programs are very quick,” says Michael Dakduk, executive vice president and director of government relations at the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, the lobbying arm of for-profits.
Here are a few steps veterans can take when considering a for-profit school.
1. Consult the GI Bill Comparison Tool: Veterans and active-duty military looking to understand how their benefits will apply to college costs can plug their information into the GI Bill Comparison Tool.
Each school’s summary provides information on whether the school is a for-profit, public or private university, costs and other information. For students worried about predatory practices at an institution, the school summary page includes the number of complaints against the institution and “caution flags,” which indicate that the school is under increased regulatory or legal scrutiny.
2. Don’t just sign on the dotted line: Veterans should be vigilant when it comes to tracking – and understanding – paperwork related to their education benefits and any other financial aid.
“The first thing that I would tell any student, and we work with veterans, is ‘Don’t trust what you’re told,'” says Walter Ochinko, policy director of Veterans Education Success, a group that aims to protect the promise of the GI Bill. Ochinko tells the story of a DeVry University student who unwittingly took on $15,000 in student loans, thinking they were Pell Grants.
“If you didn’t get it in writing, it didn’t really happen,” he says.
3. Ask tough questions: “Consumers should make sure they ask tough questions when choosing a school, including cost, the ability to transfer credits and whether it can qualify you for a job in the field you want,” says Seth Frotman, acting student loan ombudsman for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
The easiest way to get a sense of how well an institution serves its veterans: “Connect with current student veterans at the school,” says William Hubbard, vice president of government affairs at Student Veterans of America. “That’s the best source of information.”
For Serrano, the University of Phoenix student, the future is looking brighter. She recently gained admission to the University of Southern California, her dream school, after attending a workshop through the Warrior-Scholar Project, which aims to prepare veterans for the transition into the classroom.
She has advice for veterans in her position: “Find the resources that are available to you, rather than do the quick and fast route, which is going to exhaust all your money and your resources,” she says. “Slow down and really do it one time the right way.”