U.S. Veterans Targeted By Marketers in College Selection Process

PHOTO: Student Veterans of America Executive Director Michael Dakduk, a former Marine, said he was able to take advantage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill only after extensive research.David Massey for The Chronicle of Higher Education
Student Veterans of America Executive Director Michael Dakduk, a former Marine, said he was able to take advantage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill only after extensive research.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill offers financial support for veterans' education, leading some marketers to target vets with deceptive advertising about college opportunities and President Obama to sign an executive order on Friday to curb those abuses.

The bill was an enormous boost to Michael Dakduk, who served in the Marine Corps and is now executive director of Student Veterans of America, an organization whose mission is to provide vets in higher education and following graduation with resources and support.

Dakduk, who left active duty in 2008, said he would not have been able to pursue his bachelor's degree full-time at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

"I had such a substantial increase in benefits, I could focus solely on studies," Dakduk said.

The Las Vegas-native had previously attended community college while working part-time, with assistance from the Montgomery GI Bill. That bill provides a monthly education benefit to active duty military members who pay $100 a month for the financial assistance.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill, which became effective in August 2009 mainly for military members with at least 90 days of aggregate service after September 20, 2001, provided "unprecedented access to virtually any university in our country and overseas," said Dakduk, driving some schools into targeting veterans and their federal tuition assistance.

Colleges have collected more than $4.4 billion under the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported in a story about competition among colleges to lure veterans.

"I liken it to a full-ride scholarship for each student veteran," he said. Dakduk added that the latest GI Bill has opened the doors of higher education to veterans of all economic classes, as the original GI-Bill did after World War II.

Reports of aggressive and deceptive targeting by educational institutions toward service members and veterans, particularly by for-profit career colleges, moved President Obama to sign the executive order, which requires colleges to provide more information to veterans such as the likelihood of military members completing a school's programs prior to enrolling.

On Thursday, the Student Veterans of America revoked the organization's charters at 26 for-profit institutions after finding that those school groups were not led by student veterans. All 445 chapters of the Student Veterans of America are led by student veterans.

While many for-profit educational institutions offer flexible options for military members and members, Dakdak said the most recent annual review of school chapters found a pattern of issues at certain for-profit schools.

"That's not what SVA is about," he said. "It's a peer-to-peer student network led by student veterans."

The transition from a military to civilian lifestyle could create a culture shock for many veterans, especially on an academic campus. That's why speaking to a fellow veteran before enrolling in a school is so important.

"Military life is very rigid," he said. "Academic campuses promote free expression and communicating with individuals and people regardless of condition or title, which would not happen traditionally in the military."

Under the executive order, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Education Department's "Know Before You Owe" financial aid form will also be required to be made available to every college student participating in the Defense Department's tuition assistance program at nearly 2,000 schools. The form provides information about tuition and fees, estimated student loan debt upon graduation, graduation rates, among other information.

Libby Sander, reporter with The Chronicle of Higher Education, said the sheer amount of information targeted toward veterans pursuing higher education is a roadblock for those unfamiliar with the college selection process, especially the first generation of families to attend college.

"A lot of the veterans I spoke to were the first in their families to go to college and it's a big deal for them," Sander said. "They sometimes start the process with a feeling that they don't even know where to begin."

The Chronicle of Higher Education shows how a Google search for "GI Bill College" shows results that are mostly sales-oriented.

Sander explores the challenges and advantages of veterans in higher education in an ongoing series in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Out of Uniform.

Sander interviewed Paul Szoldra, a senior at the University of Tampa, will be the first of his family to graduate from college. During his eight years at the United States Marine Corps, Szoldra also obtained a degree from the for-profit University of Phoenix.

"We're always marketed to by the for-profits," Szoldra told ABC News.

Szoldra said programs from for-profits, often online, could be an ideal "bridge" before getting an undergraduate degree.

"On campus learning is much better for a transitioning veteran to interact with other veterans and interact with civilians," he said. "Getting out of the military is leaving a family and world for a foriegn one. Getting on campus and interacting with others is something you need to do right off the bat. If your first interaction with civilians is at a job interview, I think there's something wrong with that."

Szoldra decided to choose between the University of Tampa and the University of South Florida after he read a magazine article comparing those two colleges in his state, ultimately choosing the former.

"I figured if it was a smaller school than it would be a better education. That's about the extent of my knowledge at the time," he said. "Luckily U.T. has been a very great school and they have been very supportive of veterans."

Inspired by his brief college selection process, Szoldra created a website called, CollegeVeteran.com, through a business plan competition at the University of Tampa. The site, which he hopes to fully launch by the end of the year, is a free resource for military members and veterans about colleges and the college selection process.

Dakduk said the onus is on veterans to conduct research to find the best accredited schools that will help them with their career goals, instead of relying on arbitrary lists of the "best" schools for veterans.

"Research is going to be paramount," he said. "Do not take information from a third party. I don't care what their title is, whether it's the president of a university or a CEO."

Dakduk advises veterans to visit the Post-9/11 GI Bill's website from the Veteran Affairs Department, GIBill.VA.gov, to find out how much tuition assistance may be available to them and which schools offer supplementary assistance that may support a specific career.

Some academic programs may require remedial classes that veterans should plan for, such as calculus for engineering degrees.

Dakduk's eligibility of about four years of tuition assistance enables him to use his remaining months for graduate school, which he hopes to pursue in the future.

"Go straight to GIBill.va.gov and find out exactly what the benefits are," he said. "If you take information from someone out of a story or from a blog, you might be misled."