Educating Sgt. Pantzke
June 28, 2011
MARTIN SMITH, Correspondent: [voice-over] Covering the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, you spend a lot of time with young soldiers, barely out of high school, who are asked to do the toughest work the country asks of them. There are so many of them now, fighting two wars back to back.
For most, this job is not so much a career as it is a tour of duty. They just hope to survive, make it back home, and begin the next chapter in their lives.
Back on base, they prepare for a transition to civilian life. A generous GI Bill, with billions of dollars for education, is designed to ease their way. Here soldiers take college courses from a variety of schools, earning credits towards a hoped-for degree.
1st SOLDIER: I do want to get my bachelor’s before I get out. That’s one of my long-term goals.
2nd SOLDIER: Right now, I’m working on my associate’s with CTC, then I’m going to transfer to UMUC and get my four-year.
3rd SOLDIER: I’m going to transfer over to Strayer.
MARTIN SMITH: Strayer. That caught my attention. It’s one of those for-profit, mostly on-line colleges.
[on camera] Were there other schools you were looking at at the same time you were looking at Strayer?
SOLDIER: Yes, I was looking at the University of Phoenix.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Last year, I investigated the for-profit sector, including the industry giant, University of Phoenix. At that time, it was $6 billion-dollar-a-year industry with little government oversight.
[on camera] This is an on-line university. This is what it looks like.
[voice-over] Our report focused on the lengths schools go to attract students—
UNIV. OF PHOENIX SALES REP.: Are you thinking about going back to school?
MARTIN SMITH: —their accreditation problems, and the staggering amounts of student debt.
Sen. TOM HARKIN (D), Iowa: [congressional hearing] Are the students and U.S. taxpayers getting a good value?
MARTIN SMITH: Soon after our report, Congress held hearings to investigate. Quickly, they became alarmed by how much GI Bill money was going to for-profit colleges.
Sen. TOM HARKIN: All of a sudden, we found that there was a huge spike-up in the amount of military money going to these schools, a 600 percent increase in just a couple of years— huge increase. And so we started looking at that, and what we found is just really disturbing.
MARTIN SMITH: What disturbs Harkin and other critics is that more than a third of all GI Bill dollars are ending up at for-profit colleges. It’s a disproportionate share, and it appears to be growing.
DANIEL GOLDEN, Bloomberg News: Overall spending on veterans’ education went from less than $5 billion in 2009 to nearly $10 billion in 2010, and a lot of that is driven by for-profit colleges and their wooing of veterans.
MARTIN SMITH: Veterans like Mike DiGiacomo, who dreamed of pursuing a career in computer animation when he left the Army. He had learned about a for-profit school, Gibbs College in Boston, from a TV ad. When he spoke to a recruiter there, he was told they had connections to some of the biggest Hollywood studios.
MIKE DiGIACOMO, U.S. Army Veteran: They did say they had connections to get into Pixar. Pixar was pretty much the stereotypical dream of all the animation students, so I thought that would be able to live comfortably and support a family and do what I loved.
MARTIN SMITH: The school refutes it, but DiGiacomo claims Gibbs never provided proper computer animation training.
MIKE DiGIACOMO: Nobody in my family had gone to college. We didn’t know that there was bad colleges out there. We didn’t know there was— you know, that if it advertised on TV, that it wasn’t a good school. We didn’t know that kind of stuff.
MARTIN SMITH: DiGiacomo enrolled at another for-profit school, but soon realized he had run through much of his GI benefits and tens of thousands of dollars in student loans to make ends meet. He dropped out before he got the degree he was after.
MIKE DiGIACOMO: I joined the military, I even risked my life jumping out of planes, and I wanted to go to college. Honestly, I regret going to college for the rest of my life.
TELEVISION COMMERCIAL: It’s an honor to serve those who serve our country.
MARTIN SMITH: The average veteran is bombarded with for-profit college ads.
TELEVISION COMMERCIAL: I wasn’t sure coming out of the military what my plans would be.
MARTIN SMITH: A Google search for “GI Bill” turns up GIBill.com, a site which directs soldiers only to for-profit schools. Even organizations like Amvets, one of the nation’s oldest veterans’ associations, is plastered with for-profit college ads.
Sen. DICK DURBIN, (D) Illinois: What’s happened here is that there’s so much money at stake for the for-profit schools that they have hired on substantial numbers of recruiters to go after these vets. So you find many of these schools — Kaplan, University of Phoenix — with hundreds, literally hundreds of recruiters going right after these veterans.
WADE CUTLER, Fmr. Recruiter, Ashford University: They want you to look for the individual’s pain, and then you paint the picture of how much better their life can be because of actually going to Ashford to get a degree.
MARTIN SMITH: A former Marine, Wade Cutler was hired as a recruiter at the for-profit college Ashford University. Ashford has over 9,000 military students enrolled today. That’s a 2,000 percent increase in the last three years. They hire veterans like Cutler to gain the trust of GIs over the phone.
WADE CUTLER: If a military person is actually speaking with someone that’s been in the military, there’s a certain lingo or a certain slang that they’re associated with that’s very common with them.
MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] Give me an example of that.
WADE CUTLER: Well, I mean, if it’s a Marine, then, of course, I would immediately say to them, “Hoorah, Marine” or I would say “Semper fi,” and they would readily know that you were in the military, that you had prior service. And so it’s easy to establish that trust.
BRAD SELIGA, Fmr. Recruiter, Ashford University: I mean, if you wanted to keep your job, you had a certain number of students you needed to enroll.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Brad Seliga, a former National Guardsman, also recruited for Ashford.
BRAD SELIGA: You’d have these meetings, maybe on Monday, and say, “What’s your projected number for this week?” You know, everybody goes around the table, “I think I can enroll X amount of students,” maybe three students or five students. And then at the end of the week, you went over, “Did you make that number? Did you exceed that number? If you didn’t make that number, what was the reason?”
WADE CUTLER: I was only an enrollment adviser for a short period of time.
MARTIN SMITH: Cutler said he tried to make his numbers, until one day he became disillusioned by how many vets he would sign up only to see them drop out.
WADE CUTLER: Some of those people, they don’t have the regimen. They don’t have the discipline. They don’t have the ability to actually go forward.
MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] Was there any time that the university said, “Look, if you think that the soldier is not ready for this kind of study, don’t sign them up”?
WADE CUTLER: No. They don’t say that.
MARTIN SMITH: What do they say?
WADE CUTLER: They say, “Everybody is a good fit. The military is a perfect fit.”
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Ashford’s parent company, Bridgepoint Education, says Cutler and Seliga’s remarks run contrary to the school’s policy, but they declined our request for an interview.
RECRUITER CODY: Hi. Is Stephen there?
VETERAN: Yeah, this is him.
MARTIN SMITH: FRONTLINE acquired telephone recordings of recruiters from Westwood College, a for-profit school based in Denver, Colorado.
RECRUITER SAM: I get excited when I have military students because, you know, they have the discipline, they have the drive, they have the motivation.
MARTIN SMITH: The recruiters tell the military applicants they’ll receive special treatment—
RECRUITER MATT: Oh, yeah, we’re on Military.com as a military-friendly school.
MARTIN SMITH: —instruct them how to maximize their GI Bill benefits—
RECRUITER CODY: The GI was actually bumped up. We have our own military department here that works with our military students.
MARTIN SMITH: —and share job and salary prospects.
RECRUITER SAM: Right out of the gate, it looks like you have the ability to make anywhere between $72,000 to $82,000.
MARTIN SMITH: It was a Westwood recruiter who told Jason Longmore, a Navy vet, that he could earn a bachelor’s degree in just three years. After his wife’s MS caused her to lose her job, Longmore needed to get one quickly.
JASON LONGMORE, U.S. Navy Veteran: It felt like this was the right path, especially with my situation with my wife and my baby and a whole new life— a whole new life starting. This was going to be the right foot to set on and— and continue.
MARTIN SMITH: But six months into his program, he learned from a prospective employer that his Westwood degree wasn’t worth much.
JASON LONGMORE: If I was applying for jobs, I went against somebody with a construction management degree from Colorado State University and I had my degree from Westwood College, I wouldn’t be on par with that same person, although that’s what I felt I was supposed to be getting through the education that they were giving me.
MARTIN SMITH: And when Longmore went to transfer to a state school, he hit another snag. His credits were no good.
We asked Westwood about this they told us they never made any promises about credits. They pointed out Longmore had initialed a box that read, “Westwood College makes no guarantee of credit transfer.” Longmore says he was fooled.
JASON LONGMORE: Me and my wife both asked multiple times, does that mean that their credits don’t transfer, and he said, “Don’t worry. Everything will transfer. We had to put that in there because every college has credits that won’t transfer, so it has to be in there. It’s fine.” If they would have told me directly that they wouldn’t transfer, I would not have gone to Westwood College.
DAN GOLDEN, Bloomberg News: Too often at for-profit colleges, the emphasis is on recruiting the students, bringing them in the front door, getting the access to the federal money, and then leaving them to fend for themselves.
MARTIN SMITH: Dan Golden, an investigative reporter for Bloomberg News, has written extensively about some of the most extreme military recruiting efforts at for-profit colleges.
DAN GOLDEN: I went to the Marine base in North Carolina, and I found that one of the for-profit colleges was sending a recruiter to the wounded warriors barracks, where she was signing up brain-injured Marines who even had difficulty remembering what courses they were taking. And it’s quite a widespread phenomenon.
MARTIN SMITH: Take the case of Sergeant Chris Pantzke. He always planned to return to college after he came home from Iraq. He had joined the Army in 2003. Two years later, he was promoted to sergeant and became a squad leader charged with protecting fuel trucks driving through battle zones west of Baghdad. He served there for nine months until one day, a car bomb attack inflicted a traumatic brain injury, or TBI.
Sgt. CHRIS PANTZKE, U.S. Army Veteran: I started getting moody, angry. I was so depressed that I did become suicidal. I was hospitalized, and they diagnosed me with PTSD.
MARTIN SMITH: Pantzke’s story was first reported by Dan Golden in Bloomberg News. Pantzke had been drawn to the for-profit school Art Institutes.
TELEVISION COMMERCIAL: Creativity is a powerful thing—
MARTIN SMITH: Art Institutes has over 5,000 vets currently enrolled. Pantzke says he was attracted by the all the possibilities, but was worried he wouldn’t cut it.
CHRIS PANTZKE: One of the very first things, I told them that I had PTSD. And she said, “Oh, you’ll do fine. We’ll take care of you. You— not a problem.” You know, “You’re good. Don’t worry about it. We’ll take care of you.”
I looked at what they had. They had a really good on-line photography course. It was a bachelor of science. So I said, “Degree, photography, OK.” And about a day later, I get a phone call, “You’re approved. You’re in school.” It’s, like, “OK.”
MARTIN SMITH: The school would collect over $70,000 of Pantzke’s GI Bill money and other federal funds, but he was struggling to keep up with his coursework.
RENE PANTZKE, Wife: After getting into the class, there wasn’t a whole lot of help. Even though he would e-mail them, it would take them, you know, days, maybe even a week before they got back to him.
MARTIN SMITH: Then the school flunked him.
RENE PANTZKE: It just didn’t work. It wasn’t working right.
DANIEL GOLDEN: I went to see him in his home in southern Virginia, and I’ll never forget, he showed me some holes in the wall near the computer that he did his course on. He explained that he had gotten so frustrated with his inability to deal with the courses that he had punched those holes in the wall.
Here was a veteran who had given his health in the defense of his country and the taxpayers were footing the bill for him to go to college, and yet the money was not serving any noticeable purpose except to distress him.
MARTIN SMITH: The Art Institutes say they offered Pantzke extensive tutoring services at no charge. But they declined our request for an interview.
[on camera] Veterans have been a growth market for your schools.
HARRIS MILLER, Fmr. Industry Lobbyist: They’ve been a growth market for all of higher education.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] We brought our concerns to Harris Miller, until recently the industry’s chief Washington representative.
[on camera] The for-profits spend more on marketing.
HARRIS MILLER: Yes, they do.
MARTIN SMITH: And outreach.
HARRIS MILLER: Yes.
MARTIN SMITH: How does that contribute to the fact that they’re signing up at a greater rate than they are to the other schools?
HARRIS MILLER: We believe, based on conversations we’ve had with the various veterans’ organizations, that they believe that their members are very well equipped to understand all their options.
MARTIN SMITH: You’re saying the veterans are well advised?
HARRIS MILLER: Absolutely.
MARTIN SMITH: They know what they’re getting into?
HARRIS MILLER: Absolutely.
MARTIN SMITH: They’re not subject to sales pitches that come too fast and furious and misinform them?
HARRIS MILLER: They’re not allowed to be misinformed. It’s against the law. In addition, they—
MARTIN SMITH: It’s against the law, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t get done.
HARRIS MILLER: I’m saying it’s against the law.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] The agency that helps enforce that law is the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA’s Keith Wilson oversees the GI Bill.
[on camera] Have you taken action against any school for over-aggressive pursuit of veterans?
KEITH WILSON, Dir. of Education Service, Dept. of Veterans Affairs: We do. It’s— it’s not— it doesn’t happen a lot, I guess, is what I would say. But there are situations where that does occur, and we do have the authority to do that and we’ve done it.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] The VA couldn’t tell us how often. We could only find one recent example.
[on camera] Are you worried that veterans are not fully informed about what choice they’re making?
KEITH WILSON: No, I believe veterans are informed about the decisions they’re making. And we’re always working to get them better information.
MARTIN SMITH: But if a veteran goes to your site, will they find rankings and comparisons and the kind of information that the FDA publishes, for instance, on food packaging about content?
KEITH WILSON: Not on the GI Bill site. Yeah, we’re working in that direction, but right now, we don’t have that, no.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] This interview was conducted in late January.
[on camera] Do you think there’s some urgency here about getting more information out there to veterans?
KEITH WILSON: There is.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Then, this spring, as we were finishing this segment, the VA finally launched a new feature on its Web site providing the kind of information we were asking about, including this statistic that shows that graduation rates at for-profit schools stand at just 28 percent, half of what they are at traditional schools.
Sen. RICHARD DURBIN: We said to the V.A., “Is it working? Is the money we’re putting in the GI Bill that’s going to schools— for-profit schools as well as public schools— is that money really working to put these people to work, to give them the jobs that they need?” And unfortunately, the results were discouraging.
Sen. TOM HARKIN: They just basically give the money to the student and say good-bye. They don’t care where they go or what school they attend to. They do no accounting on that. They do no supervision of that. And they don’t track it.
MARTIN SMITH: Tracking what happens to veterans going to for-profit schools isn’t easy, but one important measure is jobs. Some for-profit graduates compete well on the job market, but according to a company called PayScale, graduates from the for-profit colleges we covered earn on average 12 to 15 percent less than graduates at public state schools.
TED DAYWALT, President, VetJobs: These people that are putting their lives on the line to defend our values and defend the way our country exists, they shouldn’t be treated like this. They should be treated better.
MARTIN SMITH: Ted Daywalt, a Navy vet, is the president of VetJobs, the largest job listing site for veterans. Daywalt and recently polled employers on how they value for-profit degrees.
TED DAYWALT: Human resource managers were telling me that if they have two people of similar work backgrounds, and one had a degree from an on-line school versus a well known brick-and-mortar school, they’ll go to the brick-and-mortar school.
MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] How many human resource folks have told you that?
TED DAYWALT: In the last week, because I’ve been calling a bunch of them, probably about 30.
MARTIN SMITH: You run into any who say, “No, I don’t make any distinction”?
TED DAYWALT: No.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Today, Mike DiGiacomo is working at a retail copy center. His wages have been garnished and he’s having trouble paying back his private student loans, which he says have carried interest rates as high as 18 percent.
Sen. TOM HARKIN: Look, these veterans get this benefit one time. It’s a one-time shot. And if they don’t get a quality education and something that can really help them with their lives, they’ll never get it again.
MARTIN SMITH: Shortly before this broadcast, the Art Institutes wrote to FRONTLINE to say they’ve readmitted Sgt Pantzke. But he’s already run through more than half of his GI Bill benefits and has had to borrow another $15,000 to make ends meet. He says he worries it won’t be enough to finish the $82,000 program and get his degree.
And Jason Longmore, he’s now enrolled at the University of Colorado as a civil engineering student. Tuition costs half of what he was paying at Westwood, but he’s had to start over. None of his 52 credits from Westwood was accepted.
JASON LONGMORE: From spending my GI Bill money that I worked hard for in the beginning to get and felt— thinking that I was on a track to be successful, and then finding out that all the money that I had spent and all the time that I had spent was for naught was pretty depressing.
MARTIN SMITH: Longmore says all that has made it impossible to afford his home. He’s fixing it up to sell.
JASON LONGMORE: I feel like I upheld up my end of the bargain. I don’t feel it was upheld on the other end.
Read more: pbs.org