Veterans vs. Veterans

It looks like America’s for-profit colleges have another support group, and another group of opponents: veterans.

For-profit, online colleges have taken about $640 million of new money from the GI Bill.

According to Paul Rieckhoff, a former first lieutenant in the Army National Guard and the founder of the Washington-based advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, that’s just fine. As he explained recently:

Ultimately, good value is determined by the veterans. If the veterans are using it they’re seeing good value. They’re discriminating customers. I think just like the rest of millennial generation they’re going to go where they think they get good value. To some extent the market is going to drive it, if they see value there.

In my mind that seems a little like saying that check-cashing companies must be doing a good job since poor people so overwhelmingly prefer them to real banks, but whatever.

IAVA is the nation’s first and largest nonprofit devoted to veterans of the two wars. But one organization is never enough, right? Rieckhoff’s counterpart at a rival organization thinks he’s got things wrong. Ryan Berg, another veteran, complains that:

Perhaps most fundamental to IAVA’s… failure in understanding what veterans need, is the idea mentioned at the end of Reickhoff’s statement, where he points to market forces as a legitimate guide for determining the quality of education veterans receive. It’s true that we often grant the market spontaneous agency in legitimizing the “that’s the way the cookie crumbles” perspective of economic activity. However, applying this perspective to veterans in higher education profoundly mistakes the value of our studies as a commodity for trade. The assumption peddled by Rieckhoff, a former Wall Street professional, is fracturing the veteran community and, without action, violently neglects the promise our experiences have made with the long-held tradition of service in America.

Berg is the founder of Returning Veterans of America, a newer group of returning veterans. Berg thinks that for-profits are preying on veterans, not serving them.

The bigger problem, however, might be that Rieckhoff’s glorious market isn’t a real market; it’s a synthetic one driven by federal money.

This isn’t to say that for-profit colleges are entirely are without value. Part of the reason veterans flock to these schools is because online, for-profit colleges, almost alone among institutions of higher learning, actually try to offer education conveniently; veterans can get a degree on their own time, and relatively quickly. Most colleges can’t offer that.

But this is interesting, like with so much we’ve seen about for-profit colleges in the last few months, the lines are strangely drawn.

Groups that support for-profit colleges and factions that oppose them have got Democrats and Republicans. And now it looks like they’ve both got veterans on their side.

Incidentally, neither Rieckhoff nor Berg attended proprietary colleges. Rieckhoff went to Amherst. Berg is at Berkeley.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer