Representatives of The American Legion recently visited the University of Phoenix's home campus in Scottsdale, Ariz., to review the school's performance in key areas such as education quality and fraud prevention.
Steve Gonzalez, assistant director for the Legion's Veterans Employment and Education Division, and Legion Department of Arizona Adjutant Angel Juarez were given a daylong tour of the campus from top officials at the traditionally online school, the nation's largest for-profit education institution with a veteran-heavy enrollment of 288,000.
Gonzalez and Juarez used the visit as an opportunity to discuss with University of Phoenix employees the measures that the school takes to prevent student loan fraud, the programs it has employed to help student veterans obtain degrees and the general quality of education that a student there receives. Employees took the opportunity to showcase a special "try-before-you-buy" level of enrollment that the school offers, where a student can pay a small fee out of pocket for several classes before enrolling officially. The idea is that, if the student can't handle the workload, he or she can drop out without being committed to pay for an entire year of tuition.
"This appears to be a useful feature for all prospective students, especially veterans and current military who might be unsure as to whether they are ready to pursue an education," Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said he was also surprised to see that not only did the University of Phoenix offer quality online-learning options, but its campuses also have on-site lecture halls and classrooms that feature state-of-the-art education technology.
"The classrooms looked like what you would see at any brick-and-mortar school," Gonzalez said. "The only difference was that they were equipped with teaching tools that seem to be on the cutting edge of what technology can provide."
The University of Phoenix features physical presences in 38 states and Puerto Rico. Students, whether online or traditional, may attend class at one of the local campuses or receive on-site help in person from academic advisers.
"It's good to see a school that is mostly an online-learning institution offer traditional education advising to its students," Gonzalez said. "Their online academic advising appeared to be of a strong quality, but you can never replace the intimacy of face-to-face interaction with someone who is an expert in your area of study."
Juarez said he was particularly pleased to see the way the University of Phoenix treats students who are veterans or current servicemembers. The school offers credit for military training and education, guidance for using military skills in the civilian world and special academic advisers who either have a military background or are familiar with military-speak. Additionally, the individuals in charge of Phoenix's military education programs have service backgrounds.
"I think the biggest revelation here was the effort they are putting into the military services and for veterans," Juarez said.
The American Legion has taken a cautious approach to for-profit institutions of higher education, some of which have been blamed for taking advantage of veteran students using their GI Bill benefits. The Legion has participated in a number of congressional hearings and other meetings to discuss the differences between for-profit schools that provide valuable services and those that appear to be profiteering from veterans who are leaving without marketable career skills after graduation.
"It's important to point out that The American Legion does not see this as a debate over which is better – state-funded or consumer-funded colleges," Gonzalez said. "We treat all colleges the same when it comes to the education of veterans and protection of the value of the GI Bill."
At Scottsdale, Gonzalez took the opportunity to meet with compliance officials from the school who discussed with him the institution's mechanisms to protect against fraudsters who steal identities and take out costly student loans in their victims' names. Phoenix's quality-control department is in place to add an extra layer of protection against such thieves, many of whom target veterans with education benefits, Gonzalez said.
"It's good to see that these measures are in place and being managed with such an attention to detail," Gonzalez said. "What was even better is that Phoenix is working with other institutions of higher learning to help them implement similar fraud-prevention mechanisms."
University of Phoenix officials said they appreciate the Legion and are proud to have a high concentration of active military and veterans among their student body.
"The American Legion's commitment to veterans is unparalleled," said Conwey Casillas, Apollo Education Group vice president. "It's an honor to serve 50,000 veterans, active-duty students and their family members by providing an education that connects the skills and knowledge they already have and need, to a rewarding career after the military."