Guest Column

Private-sector schools work with, and for, GIs

By WILLIAM R. LOONEY III | Published: October 14, 2011

Active-duty servicemembers and veterans have defended our liberty. We should defend their freedom to choose among the various alternatives for higher education.

The post-9/11 GI Bill greatly expanded benefits for those who wear the uniform. Unfortunately, many lawmakers continue to view higher education as something delivered only on a traditional college campus.

I disagree. Private-sector colleges and universities (PSCUs), sometimes called career colleges, are a very important part of the postsecondary mix. Here’s why these institutions are so vital to our military.

Most military students begin their postsecondary education after joining the military. It is in the military where these individuals acquire a desire for higher education along with the focus and discipline to be successful. Given the demands of their service, these individuals usually spend years away from the traditional classroom setting. Therefore to serve the servicemember’s educational needs, postsecondary education must be flexible and adaptable. In the case of deployed soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, it must be available where and when it is needed, no matter the time or the setting.

Postsecondary educational institutions must recognize that mobility is critical and credits should be easily transferable. Servicemembers do not get to pick when and where they serve. An educational system that only offers the traditional in-residence classroom, liberal arts-and-sciences model misses the reality of military life. Deployments play havoc with the educational plans of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. Service in combat zones adds an obvious set of complications to completing assignments and remaining on schedule to complete a degree. Military-friendly colleges and universities must understand and adapt.

Part of adaptation requires the educational institution to provide a range of academic and support services: career-focused programs that expedite the transition from military to civilian workforce, reasonable leave-of-absence policies; enlightened and informed financial aid counseling; and effective credit and SMART transcript reviews to maximize past experience and minimize course redundancy. Undergirding all of this must be a commitment to honest representations about the value of the educational services offered and a commitment to the highest quality of service delivery. All students, whether they have served in the military or not, deserve no less.

But adaptation to support our military students is not just a job for academic institutions. Our elected officials must also understand the need for options to remain open to our servicemembers — and for those options to be unencumbered by the thinking of the past. The popularity of private-sector colleges and universities has recently been called into question, primarily because these schools are just that: popular among military service and veteran students. Like any private school, these institutions do not receive government subsidies. Therefore, tuition at a PSCU costs more than tuition at a public college or university. Private institutions, regardless of their tax status, may simply do a better job of meeting the special interests and requirements of military service and veteran students.

Certainly there are lapses in PSCU education, as there are in traditional higher education. These should be isolated, analyzed and corrected. With unemployment rates for veterans running in the double digits, however, we should tread carefully among our higher-education policy choices. Stigmatizing PSCU education generally for the actions of a few harms military service students and veterans. And building barriers to the delivery of higher education by conjoining federal student aid and military veterans’ earned benefits policies, a step currently contemplated by members of Congress, is counterproductive.

Let’s honor our servicemembers by keeping their postsecondary education options and our thinking open to what works for them.

Gen. William R. Looney III (retired) is a former command pilot with more than 4,000 flying hours, including 2,500 in the F-15. He currently consults on national security, serves on numerous boards, and is a leadership/management mentor. His clients include Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology in Tulsa, Okla., an Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities member institution.

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