The Department of Defense's $517-million military tuition assistance program should monitor online education programs and have a centralized system for collecting and processing student complaints, according to recommendations from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
The GAO report, released March 1, called for greater oversight in the handling of DoD tuition assistance, which provided college funds for 526,000 military personnel in fiscal 2010, according to Maj. Monica Matoush, a DoD spokeswoman.
DoD's current oversight policies "vary by a school's level of program participation," meaning the department pays close attention to institutions with large service member populations, but might provide little or no oversight for colleges with few military personnel, according to the report.
GAO said the department's oversight procedures were "narrow in scope and lacked accountability" since distance education programs - mostly online courses - are not included in oversight reviews. Distance classes accounted for 71 percent of military higher education in fiscal 2009, according to the report.
Schools that operate on a military base are subject to the most scrutiny by DoD overseers.
DoD has announced plans to "implement more uniform oversight policies and procedures," the GAO report said, but those changes won't take affect until 2012.
Jim Sweizer, vice president of military programs at American Military University in Manassas, Va., said DoD would need to shift its oversight policies as the popularity of online college courses have skyrocketed among servicemen and women. In 2000, Sweizer said, about 15 percent of service members enrolled in college took distance classes. That percentage has more than quadrupled in 11 years.
"There's been a tremendous paradigm shift in the way [higher education] operates," Sweizer said. "Not too long ago, military involvement in distance education was extremely small."
The prevalence of online courses among military personnel has helped AMU grow from a school of 10,000 students in 2005 to an institution with more than 80,000 students today. Two-thirds of those students are active military, Sweizer said.
According to Matoush, the department reviewed GAO's five recommendations, "concurred with all of them and are implementing them now.
"The Department of Defense is very concerned about the quality of education our members receive," Matoush said, adding that students using military tuition assistance can only attend colleges and universities approved by an agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
Matoush said the department is crafting a new agreement with colleges that participate in DoD's tuition assistance program, ensuring officials at those schools know that their institution must offer "student counseling, report graduation rates, participate in a review process, and clearly state student policies and procedures."
Military tuition assistance covers up to $250 per credit hour and a maximum of $4,500 annually for a service member in college. Tuition expenditures have risen every year since 2006, according to GAO's analysis.
Sweizer said stringent DoD oversight of online colleges could be beneficial to those schools after recent reports documenting questionable practices at popular for-profit institutions with large online student enrollment. A GAO report released last August documented some of those practices, including pressuring students into accepting loans they would struggle to pay back.
"We welcome that type of scrutiny," he said. "There are players on the fringes of online education that need more attention [from the DoD] ... This oversight is in our best interest and the best interest of the students we serve. We want to make sure DoD funds are being spent properly."
The GAO report also recommended that DoD create a centralized system for collecting student complaints about their colleges and universities, making it easier for the department to spot common complaints and address them at several colleges, not just one at a time.
Military personnel with complaints about their college courses or tuition processing can speak with a counselor at a military base's education center or dial a call center service. However, DoD lacks "a formal process or guidance" for when student complaints should be forwarded to the student's military service chief or the DoD.
Establishing a centralized office for complaints logged in the tuition assistance program, Sweizer said, would help DoD officials more quickly identify persistent problems service members face in school.
"This is long overdue and really a step in the right direction," he said. "You'll be able to get more timely information out to the field" about challenges faced by students receiving DoD's tuition assistance.