Mae McGarry thought she had the perfect match when she found Southern Columbia University's online degree program in criminal justice after she returned from serving in Iraq in 2005.
The Erie mother of three attended Mercyhurst College for a year after high school before she joined the Army, where she earned 12 more college credits. Finally, home from Iraq and with a discharge on the horizon, McGarry decided to tap her GI benefits to finish her education.
But after three years of online courses, she said, she found herself $50,000 in debt, with no degree and credits that wouldn't transfer anywhere else. Officials at Southern Columbia did not respond to a request for comment.
Many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are shouldering heavy debt from for-profit schools, said Patrick Uetz, a retired Marine Corps colonel and director of the University of San Diego Law School's Initiative to Protect Student Veterans. The exact number isn't known because Congress neglected to include tracking requirements in the post-9/11 GI Bill to monitor the progress and graduation rates of about 2 million veterans who qualify for benefits.
"We believe there are quite a number of individuals who have completed a program or stopped part-way through and are dissatisfied with what they received or that they were misinformed or outright lied to about it," he said.
A U.S. Senate investigative report released in August found for-profit colleges received the lion's share of military education benefits -- 37 percent of the post-9/11 GI bill benefits and 50 percent of the Department of Defense tuition assistance benefits.
McGarry said she met a representative of Southern Columbia, an Alabama-based online school, through another vet and became sold on it based on a university recruiter's promises.
"They said they were accredited nationally, and I loved the low tuition rate -- $240 a credit," McGarry said.
That compares with about $290 per credit hour at public universities in Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education and as much as $900 a credit at many private nonprofit universities.
Michael Dakduk, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, is executive director of Student Veterans of America, a coalition of 600 student veterans organizations across the country.
Although anecdotal evidence such as McGarry's story suggests problems, Dakduk cautioned they may not be as widespread as some believe. He is a member of a blue ribbon panel of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities studying veterans education. The association represents for-profit schools.
"Both politicians and some folks in the media have made some generalizations, saying it is plaguing the entire for-profit sector. It's not. ... Do I think there were some folks who were recruited under false pretenses or lied to and pointed to private loans instead of federal loans? We all know there are a few diploma mills and folks that don't hold the same standards, but this is a consumer education issue," Dakduk said.
McGarry, 34, said she discovered there was a lot the recruiter didn't tell her. The school was accredited by an organization that ranks online schools, but her credits wouldn't transfer. Later she learned the school steered her toward tens of thousands of dollars in private student loans rather than lower-cost federal loans.
Last month, McGarry and 10 other student veterans across the nation won $5,000 scholarships from the Veterans' Student Relief Fund to help pay down their debts. A private family foundation established the fund to assist "otherwise financially responsible" veterans who incurred excessive debts at for-profit schools.
"That lowered my debt to $45,000," said McGarry, a self-employed photographer pursuing a psychology degree part time in an online program with St. Leo University, a private nonprofit college with a brick-and-mortar campus in Florida.
The Relief Fund is accepting applications for a second round of scholarship awards through Dec. 1.
"I want to prevent other vets from losing their GI bill benefits and exhausting their (12-semester) Pell grant eligibility at places like Southern Columbia," McGarry said.
Dakduk said his group and others are teaming with the Department of Veterans Affairs to press for more accountability.
Paul Belk, 39, of Charlotte, N.C., said the program is ripe for change.
Belk, a National Guard veteran who served in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, has $26,000 in student debt from DeVry University's online program. He enrolled after talking with a school representative at the National Guard Armory with the understanding his GI benefits would cover all costs. He said he later learned he was amassing debt.
"I fought in the war, and the last thing I expected was to have to fight a school," he said.
Like McGarry, he received a $5,000 scholarship from the Relief Fund. Now he's attending classes at a brick-and-mortar campus of another for-profit school, the University of Phoenix.
"When you're working, you often don't have the option to go to a regular public university," Belk said. "There is a place for the DeVrys and the University of Phoenix. But be careful and ask lots of questions."