Military career skills program for spouses under scrutiny



USA Today Published: April 9, 2012

Dana Kendall adored her dog, Toni, but struggled to manage the brindle-coated pit bull terrier she rescued from dog-fighting. The dog was unruly, had not been housebroken and did not respond to simple commands.

“She didn’t even know she was a dog,” says Kendall, 29. “I needed something that could help me help her.”

So the young Navy wife enrolled in dog-training lessons in 2009 through a California-based obedience school, Animal Behavior College. And the U.S. military picked up the entire tab as part of a Defense Department program to give military spouses career skills they can use no matter how often their families move.

The program, known as the My Career Advancement Account, has proved wildly popular: More than 147,000 spouses have participated since it began in 2009, and demand was so high the military briefly suspended the program, retooled it to apply only to the spouses of junior servicemembers and reduced the maximum benefit from $6,000 to $4,000.

The program now is facing scrutiny from Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and other lawmakers, who are examining the growing share of military education benefits going to for-profit schools. In fiscal year 2011, for instance, for-profit colleges got $280 million — half the money the military gave to active-duty personnel for tuition assistance, according to Harkin’s committee.

Harkin also is concerned about the program’s use of for-profit vocation schools, such as Animal Behavior College, which is not subject to federal education oversight but has received $5.7 million from the program over three years, according to Defense Department data analyzed by Harkin’s staff.

Congress, states attorneys general and the U.S. Justice Department all have examined for-profit schools’ recruitment practices and the high loan-default rates among their graduates. For-profit colleges, many of which have online operations, have marketed their services heavily to military families, touting their ability to provide distance education to deployed servicemembers.

A 1998 federal law required for-profit colleges to obtain at least 10 percent of their revenue from sources other than federal student aid administered by the U.S. Department of Education. The military’s education assistance doesn’t count as federal student aid, however. As a result, every servicemember using Defense Department benefits to attend a for-profit college allows the school to enroll nine other students using federal education benefits, said Holly Petraeus, who works to protect military families from scams as an assistant director of the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

That has given some for-profit schools “an incentive to see servicemembers as nothing more than dollar signs in uniform,” she told a Senate panel last year.

Steve Gunderson, the new president of the for-profit colleges’ trade association, said the schools do a good job serving military families by offering distance learning and flexible schedules. “The reason we get so much of that business is we design our courses in a way that works for them,” he said.

Legislation introduced this year by Harkin and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, would bar colleges from receiving more than 85 percent of their revenue from federal sources, including military education benefits available to veterans, active duty personnel and their spouses. Gunderson’s group, the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, opposes the bill.

Four of the 10 schools that received the most money from My Career Advancement Account Program in fiscal year 2011 were not subject to federal education oversight. Advocates for military families say they’d like to see more publicly available data about the participants, so spouses can comparison shop.

In an interview, Petraeus said she is worried that servicemembers and spouses are being misled. She said she was taken aback when the wife of a soldier described herself as attending a “military” for-profit school during a Petraeus visit last year to Fort Campbell, an Army installation straddling Kentucky and Tennessee. Petraeus declined to name the school, but said “it was obviously not anything that had a military affiliation.”

“You only get one chance to spend these benefits,” said Petraeus, the wife of CIA director and retired general David Petraeus. “I don’t want them spending it on something that won’t guarantee success.”

For her part, Kendall, who lives in Converse, Texas, had a positive experience with the Animal Behavior College. She said the program offered everything she wanted and more. She suffers anxiety attacks because of a childhood trauma, and she learned how to train Toni to act as her service dog.

When Kendall starts to feel anxious, Toni nudges her until Kendall pets her. “It calms me down,” Kendall says. She also completed the school’s veterinary assistance program — taught through a combination of home study and an internship — and started a business that trained about 35 dogs in its first year.

The pricetag for the dog training and veterinary-assistance programs: $5,100.

“I feel like it’s a good allocation of resources and should be continued,” Kendall says. “When I am working with dogs, I have a huge sense of fulfillment.”

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