DOD improves troops' access to quality education

  • Published
  • By Elaine Wilson
  • American Forces Press Service
Defense Department officials are taking extensive measures -- from education reviews to agency partnerships -- to ensure service members have access to quality education and learning opportunities in their off-duty hours, a Defense Department official said.

Robert L. Gordon III, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy, outlined these efforts for members of a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee March 2.

Each year, one-third of the nation's service members enroll in post-secondary education courses leading to associate's, bachelor's and advanced degrees, Mr. Gordon said. This past year alone, officials tallied more than 857,000 course enrollments and more than 45,000 service members who earned a degree or certification.

Service members are nontraditional students, attending school part time during off-duty hours, Mr. Gordon said, noting that oftentimes "military missions, deployments, transfers and family obligations impinge on their ability to continue their education."

This can result in an interruption of studies, or breaks of months and even years between courses or in completing degree requirements, he said.

To better accommodate their work schedules and demands, military officials are turning to technology to create more opportunities than ever before, Mr. Gordon said. Colleges and universities deliver classroom instruction via the Internet and on military installations around the world.

"There are no geographical confines," he said. "Courses are offered on-board ships, submarines and at deployed locations."

From spring 2009 to 2010, for example, 432 service members in Iraq and Afghanistan graduated from post-secondary schools, Mr. Gordon said.

With such a widespread educational offering, officials are working to ensure that tuition assistance dollars, intended for off-duty education, are well spent. All institutions participating in tuition assistance programs must be accredited by an accrediting body recognized by the Education Department, Mr. Gordon said. And colleges and universities on installations must adhere to additional criteria.

The DOD, Gordon said, also contracted with the American Council on Education to conduct the Military Installation Voluntary Education Review, which provided a third-party independent review of the DOD's on-installation programs.

Officials are pursuing another contract, to be awarded by Oct. 1, that will have an "enhanced quality criteria," Mr. Gordon explained, and include all modes of course delivery as well as all institutions on and off military installations participating in the tuition assistance program. Officials will track third-party recommendations for this new review, he added, and monitor corrective actions to ensure ongoing improvement.

To further bolster educational services, officials are on track to implement a new policy, effective Jan. 1, 2012, that would require every institution participating in the tuition assistance program to have a memorandum of understanding with theDOD. This MOU would include an agreement that institutions must participate in the new review process, he said.

The DOD officials are also working with the Education Department on a "sharing agreement," Gordon noted, which if enacted, will enable officials to receive reports from accrediting agencies, school-monitoring reviews and requirements for state authorizations of schools. The department will apply this information within the DOD's voluntary education programs and prior to issuing tuition assistance funds, he explained.

To garner feedback, officials have developed an online, automated tracking system to document issues and concerns, Mr. Gordon said. Students, DOD personnel and schools can submit their comments on a Web-based system, which will track submissions and record resolutions, he said.

"The information gleaned will be used to address improper behavior or questionable practices by an institution participating in the TA program," Gordon said.

Government Accountability Office officials recently conducted a detailed examination of the tuition assistance program, Mr. Gordon said. "I'm pleased to say that I believe their report on our management of this large and complex program was favorable," he said.

The accountability office made five administrative recommendations, Mr. Gordon said. "We concurred with all of them and are implementing them now," he said.