The Defense Department plans to increase oversight of for-profit, online college degree programs that it spends hundreds of millions of dollars on each year in tuition assistance for servicemembers.

The proposed DOD policy would hold online colleges to the same review process as institutions that operate traditional classrooms on military installations. It would also establish new “memorandums of understanding” between the department and the schools serving servicemembers to ensure quality.

The DOD contractor that coordinates higher education opportunities for troops told Stars and Stripes this week that it is addressing concerns raised by the Government Accountability Office in a report that criticized 15 popular for-profit schools — some endorsed by the military — for deceptive recruiting practices.

“We inquired about their marketing policies and procedures related to educational programs provided to servicemembers and requested assurance from the institution’s senior leadership that they are complying” with military-approved guidelines, Kathy Snead, director of the Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges, said in an e-mail.

The GAO report did not name 15 schools in question.

About 40 percent of the $580 million in tuition assistance for active-duty troops in fiscal 2010 went to online, for-profit colleges, Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Ark., said Wednesday during a hearing of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. Seventy percent of the total funding was for all online programs, he said.

“These degrees need to mean something,” Snyder later told the Bloomberg news agency, which reported in December that for-profit schools were targeting military members but not held to the same scrutiny as other state universities, community colleges and nonprofit private universities.

Officials say the DOD policy could be instituted by the end of the year, Bloomberg reported.

The Defense Department has subsidized college tuition for active-duty troops since 1947.

“Some for-profit institutions may be aggressively targeting service members and veterans, signing them up for educational programs that may bring little benefit to future employment opportunities, low graduation rates and high [loan] default rates,” according to an Aug. 4 letter sent by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki.

The senators also mentioned concerns about “excessive tuition” being charged by for-profit institutions and asked the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide data on how much is spent at those types of schools and the standards in place to assure their curriculum is valuable.

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