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A  screen grab shows a University of Phoenix logo at the end of a promotional video.

A screen grab shows a University of Phoenix logo at the end of a promotional video. (YouTube)

WASHINGTON — Three Republican senators on Thursday asked the Pentagon to review its recent decision to place the University of Phoenix on probation, stating the for-profit higher education giant had been suspended for “vague, technical violations.”

In a letter addressed to Defense Secretary Ash Carter, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., accused the Defense Department of “unfairly singling out” the University of Phoenix in its decision to temporarily bar it from the DOD’s tuition assistance program for active duty personnel and from recruiting on military installations.

“We strongly support efforts to monitor the integrity of colleges and universities serving our nation’s servicemembers,” the Republicans’ letter said. “However, based on our review of the relevant documents associated with this decision, we are concerned that the DOD’s decision is unfair, requires additional review, and may warrant reconsideration.”

The probation, which halted the University of Phoenix’s memorandum of understanding with the DOD, could become permanent.

Dawn Bilodeau, chief of the Voluntary Education Program for the Department of Defense, wrote a letter to the university announcing the probation and cited several issues including the unauthorized use of official military seals and insignia, unapproved visits to military installations and ongoing investigations by California’s attorney general and the Federal Trade Commission.

She said the probationary period was intended to “minimize harm to students.” The University of Phoenix was given two weeks to respond. It was not immediately clear if it had.

In fiscal year 2014, almost 10,000 servicemembers attended the University of Phoenix through the tuition assistance program, according to the Pentagon. The University of Phoenix collected nearly $300 million from that program and the Post-9/11 GI Bill programs last year, according to figures provided Sen. Dick Durban, D-Ill.

On Oct. 7, Durban praised the Pentagon’s decision, which he had called for since a June article by the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting documented University of Phoenix’s deceptive marketing practices.

“This is a decisive action by the Department of Defense to protect servicemembers and taxpayers from a company that offers degrees of questionable value,” Durbin said. “With below-average graduation rates and a student loan default rate almost forty percent higher than the national average, the University of Phoenix is going to have a hard time explaining why students should continue to enroll in this institution.”

In their letter, the Republican senators called the allegations raised by Durban and CIR “unsubstantiated.”

Going further, they said the DOD decision failed “to acknowledge any of the university’s corrective action or pledged cooperation.”

In a note to investors following the Pentagon’s decision, Apollo Education Group, the parent company of the University of Phoenix, said it had “immediately discontinued” using challenge coins with official military logos and had discussed the approval process for sponsoring events at military posts.

“Notably, all of the prior sponsored events in question had been approved by base officials and were conducted pursuant to written agreements,” the Apollo note read.

The senators asked Carter to respond to a series of inquiries about the decision and the Pentagon’s policies concerning memorandums of understanding with higher education institutions. Among the information they asked for: “Specific, factual and evidentiary bases” for the DOD to place the University of Phoenix on probation; who, beyond Bilodeau, was involved in the decision making; a list of all institutions previously banned from participating in the tuition assistance program and the DOD’s reasons and the number of active-duty servicemembers the probation or termination would directly impact.

Military students using the DOD tuition assistance program while enrolled at the University of Phoenix will be allowed to complete courses they are taking now and any new courses that are part of their academic program, Bilodeau said. No new or transfer students will be granted Defense Department tuition assistance to attend the University of Phoenix while it is under probation or suspension. Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

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Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.
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