For-profit schools, especially those that offer online degrees, have become increasingly popular among service members and veterans, despite criticism from academics and lawmakers who say those degrees don't offer enough value.
But even as legislation is prepared in Congress to give these schools more scrutiny, some major employers say they're not as concerned about where veterans get their degrees.
In July, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 8.6 percent of all veterans — and 12.4 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans — were unemployed. Many positions at companies that contract with the Defense Department, and frequently hire veterans, require a bachelor's degree.
But some employers say service members often bring other skills to the table that reduce the emphasis on education in the hiring process.
Lockheed Martin, which participates in an employer partnership with the armed forces, said a degree from a for-profit college is often enough when combined with other military skills.
"Not to downplay really good accredited schools," Lockheed Martin spokesman Chris Williams said, "I honestly don't know that we would [discriminate between degrees]. I honestly think it goes back to what the degree is in and the specialization."
Ferris Morrison, a spokeswoman for Bank of America, said the source of a degree — or having one at all — often doesn't play into the hiring process.
"We don't view any type of degree as any different," Morrison said.
Officials at engineering company Siemens AG declined to comment on the value of a for-profit degree, but said veterans' skills learned in the military are their main focus.
Heat from the Hill
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and a number of other critics have decried the lack of Defense Department oversight on how many troops are using their GI Bill funds at for-profit schools, citing concerns about the value of the degrees.
"In many cases, the degrees that they get from these for-profit colleges aren't worth very much," said Harkin, who is chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. "They only get one shot at it. They get one time at this money, and if they don't get anything, they can't come back and get some more."
Harkin plans to introduce legislation soon that he says could require closer scrutiny of for-profit schools.
The military needs to know "who's signing up for these courses, how much are they costing, where's the money going, and what's happening to these young men and women," he said. "Right now as we know, people are dropping out at astonishing rates from these schools. Within one year, a half a million students left these schools with no diploma, no degree, but a lot of debt. But we don't know how many of those are military people."
The amount of federal military tuition assistance received by for-profit schools more than tripled between 2009 and 2010 to $521 million. And it is expected to grow as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down and returning service members leave the military for the private sector. At least 10 percent of a for-profit school's funding must come from sources other than the federal government. GI bill benefits, however, can be counted within that 10 percent.
Private for-profit colleges often charge tuition above the cap for military tuition assistance, with excess funding coming through student loans. Nearly 25 percent of students at for-profit schools are defaulting on their loans within three years of leaving school, according to the Education Department.
Still, troops are finding the schools a convenient way to add to their skills. Master Sgt. Kimberly Byers worked towards her bachelor's degree online through the for-profit American Military University while deployed in Afghanistan, and is now pursuing her master's degree at AMU as well. She said a combination of military skills and a degree makes a returning service member more marketable, but that the education component is crucial.
"I've talked to several soldiers who've come back and said there are no jobs out there, and that's not the case," Byers said. "If you have an education to back [your veteran or disability status] up you are even more marketable."