Back in the spring, close to 50 unemployed young veterans gathered in a state agency building in Richardson, Texas, to learn how to rework their resumes and make themselves more attractive job candidates.
The first speaker was someone from the University of Phoenix, a mammoth for-profit college that does an overwhelming amount of its educating online, not in classrooms. She passed out brochures, then detailed why the veterans should use their generous education benefits at her school.
Jim DePaolo, laid off just weeks before, was stunned.
"This person was introduced as 'She has a lot of good and important information, and she will help you be successful,' " DePaolo said. "We were right there in Richardson, just a few miles from (the University of Texas at Dallas). They weren't there. No other school was. I can't begin to tell you how frustrated I was."
DePaolo, an Air Force veteran, had once been a student at the University of Phoenix, an experience he described as "terrible" and a "wasted" year of hard-earned government benefits. More shocking than the sales pitch, he said, was the perceived endorsement the school received from the Texas Workforce Commission.
Perhaps it shouldn't have been shocking. For-profit universities such as the University of Phoenix, DeVry University, Strayer University, Ashford University and Kaplan University - typically called "career colleges" - have marketed themselves to veterans so successfully that they are taking in tens of millions of dollars annually in taxpayer money after the passage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
For-profit colleges account for 13 of the 15 universities that have received the most GI Bill money in the last three years.
Critics in the veteran community and in some quarters of Congress and dozens of state attorneys general are wondering what the nation is getting in return for that staggering educational investment.
"Their mission is not to educate," said Tom Tarantino, chief policy director for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a New York-based advocacy organization for young veterans. "Their mission is to make a profit. I've got no problem if they make money as long as they're producing graduates with a quality education. That's not the case."
The industry has responded vigorously, saying the attacks are politically driven by opponents of for-profit education.
For-profit colleges, advocates say, fill a need for nontraditional or working students to obtain a higher education and "a pathway to employment in high-demand occupations."
The colleges are even more important, they say, given the budget-cutting and stretched resources of public higher education.
"Somewhere between 8 (million) and 23 million additional people going into the workforce need to have postsecondary education and skills," said Steve Gunderson, a former Republican congressman who serves as president of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities.
"That's above and beyond what is already in the pipeline. We've got to see an expansion of postsecondary education in this country. I believe the private sector is the only one that can find the resources to expand and meet this need."
The University of Phoenix, which does not belong to the major trade association, has said the entire sector has been painted with a broad brush and suggested that the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion support the industry.
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