U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin has asked the Pentagon to suspend taxpayer-supported tuition payments to the University of Phoenix and ban the for-profit college from military bases until an investigation into potential violations of federal law takes place.
In a letter to Defense Secretary Ash Carter, the Illinois Democrat cited an investigation published Tuesday by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, which found that the college chain had developed a cozy relationship with the armed forces, enabling it to elude a 2012 executive order from President Barack Obama. That order was designed to prevent for-profit colleges from gaining preferential access to service members and veterans.
Reveal disclosed that the University of Phoenix repeatedly had paid the military for exclusive access to bases, held recruitment events disguised as résumé workshops and used military insignias in school marketing without the required permission.
The strategies have helped the for-profit college bring in $1.2 billion in GI Bill money since 2009, far more than any other college in the country, public or private. The school also received $20 million in tuition assistance from the Pentagon last year.
“I am astonished at the Department (of Defense)’s willingness to accept payment for access, in violation of the spirit” of the executive order, Durbin wrote. Noting that many proprietary colleges engage in “aggressive, deceptive or abusive marketing and recruiting practices,” he said: “It is clear from the article that the Department has not taken this threat or its own regulations seriously.”
At the Pentagon, spokesman Lt Cmdr. Nathan Christensen said the department is “aware of the letter from the senator” and “will respond promptly and directly to him.” The department previously told Reveal that it already had cracked down on the problem and believed schools were complying.
The University of Phoenix has declined to discuss its recruiting efforts with Reveal, but in a statement posted on its website, the school’s corporate parent, the Apollo Education Group, said the University of Phoenix has “unconditionally and unilaterally supported the President’s Executive Order.”
The company said the University of Phoenix paid the military to sponsor morale-boosting events on bases in order “to enhance the quality of life of those who support and defend our country.”
In his letter to the Pentagon, Durbin asked Carter to “halt the company’s access to military personnel through the Hiring Our Heroes job fair program.”
A hidden camera investigation carried out as part of Reveal’s investigation showed the University of Phoenix used employment workshops at Hiring Our Heroes job fairs to blanket service members and veterans with school marketing and drive them to the school’s website for a military skills conversion tool.
Internal company documents showed the company meticulously tracked the number of veterans who enrolled as a result of the job fairs as a recruitment tool, in violation of military regulations and the school’s agreement with the events’ sponsor, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.
The company’s statement, however, said the employment workshops, often held on military bases, “stand above reproach.”
“Even hidden camera footage proves that at Hiring our Heroes events, no student leads were sought and only meaningful resources provided by University of Phoenix were shared,” the statement said. “An honest, fair and objective review of material at Hiring our Heroes events makes clear that these are valuable tools that any veteran can afford themselves.”
Durbin also asked the defense secretary to investigate whether the for-profit college was violating its contract with the military, in which it agrees to follow all government regulations regarding predatory recruitment practices. He said Carter should “investigate and prosecute the company for its infringement of Department of Defense trademarks through its mock ‘challenge coins.’ ”
The coins, similar to official versions handed out by military commanders to subordinates for significant contributions, were used by the University of Phoenix to thank military officials for access. One side featured the school’s logo and the other included insignias for every military branch. Representatives of trademark offices for all branches told Reveal that they had not approved that use.
In its statement, the Apollo Group did not address the challenge coins. Previously, Pentagon officials had indicated that they were concerned about the coin, and department spokesman Christensen said officials would look into it.
This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Nikki Frick.