A group representing for-profit colleges, a sector whose educational value is under intense scrutiny, has announced the creation of a task force to recommend ways to improve military and veteran education.
Officials from the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities said the task force will include representatives from many of the largest for-profit schools, with some veterans groups playing an advisory role.
Veterans' advocates inside and outside of the task force voiced cautious optimism.
"This would just really be another step that schools — particularly proprietary schools — could take to demonstrate … how they're taking veterans' best interests in mind," said Ryan Gallucci, of Veterans of Foreign Wars. He is serving as a special adviser to the task force. "They basically came to the table with an idea, and if we can be a part of that discussion, we want to have a seat at the table."
For-profit higher education has faced harsh criticism, with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and others questioning whether such schools are taking advantage of military students.
In July, Harkin released a massive report charging that many for-profits recruit service members too aggressively and provide poor education.
Steve Gunderson, president and chief executive of the for-profit consortium, responded then by calling Harkin's report a political attack that "twists the facts."
Gunderson said Nov. 13 that the majority of schools "not only honor veterans but serve them very well." He said the goal of the task force is to identify and promote the best practices of for-profit schools.
The task force consists of 12 members, most for-profit school officials, but also the president of the independent Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges consortium.
Representatives of VFW, Student Veterans of America and the American Legion will act as special advisers, offering input but not determining what goes in the group's final report, planned for release early next year.
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a group that has been one of for-profit education's most vocal critics, was not included.
Tom Tarantino, IAVA's chief policy officer, said the task force "can go one of two ways."
"This can be the schools that are actually very serious about giving veterans the right type of job training trying to take control of an industry that … has largely run amok over veterans benefits in the last couple of years — or it could be the fox guarding the henhouse," Tarantino said.
Russell Kitchner, a vice president at American Public University System and task force member, said some of the recent critical focus on for-profit schools "is not unwarranted." But he noted that problems also exist in nonprofit higher education.