WASHINGTON -- With the passage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, veterans became a prime target of for-profit colleges hoping to cash in on the new windfall of federal education dollars. While the schools largely succeeded, netting an outsized chunk of GI Bill tuition payments, some veterans found themselves steered into programs where instruction and support died off once their checks cleared.
President Barack Obama, among others, blamed the problem on poor information. In April, Obama signed an executive order that attempts to curb misleading sales tactics used to lure veterans, and to force greater transparency on important statistics like graduation rates.
But Paul Szoldra thinks that such information needs a higher profile. The former Marine sergeant, launched a petition on change.org last week calling on U.S. News and World Report to create college rankings using stats important to veterans.
"It's so fuzzy out there, there's just so much junk when you're searching for stuff," he said. "It can make it very difficult. The idea is to give vets a better outlook from an unbiased source."
Some of the "junk" comes from websites that appear official but are actually funneling veterans to certain schools. Szoldra worried that this can convince service members with no experience choosing colleges that their options are limited.
Szoldra, who enrolled at the University of Tampa after leaving active duty in 2010, recalled searching for colleges in Florida with little idea of what to look for. "My choice was basically, like, if it's more expensive and it's got less students, it's gotta be better," he said. "That was the extent of my reasoning."
In addition to getting the same information needed by non-military prospective students, the former Marine wants veterans to have access to trustworthy numbers on things like the veteran population at colleges, graduation rates among vets, and whether or not schools offer support like veterans' centers, student groups or discounted tuition.
While Szoldra has started his own website to help make more information available, he believes that U.S. News and World Report, which already publishes highly influential college rankings each year, would add "a lot of credibility" to such numbers.
At the time of publication, the petition had been signed by 1,273. Szoldra said he has no specific goal for the number of signatures but wants "as many as needed to have U.S. News and World Report take notice." The magazine did not respond to a request for comment.
Szoldra also believes that rankings, like the executive order, might force change among predatory for-profit colleges. Already this year, some schools were caught using administrators to set up bogus veterans' groups to appear veteran friendly, stressing the need to bring their activities into public view.
Another veteran, former Army Sgt. Chris Zeitz, agreed. He recalled doing his own research after two young soldiers told him they enrolled at Jones International University, which Zeitz had never heard of. The school gave presentations to soldiers at his base in Fort Campbell, Ky., but problems emerged after some digging.
"I Google-searched JIU and found that some of the top related searches included the phrase 'scam,'" he said. He discovered that the school's accreditation was under threat and convinced his soldiers to choose a more reputable college. The experience made him wary of schools that, like JIU, were able to provide quick one-stop services like "a degree plan ... within hours from their counselors," allowing them to prey on motivated service members.
"When you have government money poured into a program, I think it attracts some dubious characters," he said.
Like Zeitz, Szoldra noted that for-profit schools are "very, very good at taking care of everything for you." While this can be an advantage if a school provides a good education, he said, it can also be the deciding factor for many veterans who don't have access to other information and can't distinguish between colleges. Unfortunately for veterans, even quick or poorly informed decisions have high stakes
"You get one shot at it with the GI Bill," Szoldra said. "If you don't make the right decision, your money's gone."