“Military Friendly” Exposed as Higher Ed Pay-to-Play Scheme Targeting Veterans

Kutztown University likes to advertise that it is a Military Friendly® school. One thing that has bothered me for years is that little trademark symbol next to the term. As an Iraq veteran and someone who works closely with young students who served in the military, I have an obligation to protect their interests and my school’s. I had some suspicions about that trademark. So I started digging and what I found out turned out to be pretty infuriating.

The phrase Military Friendly® is owned by a Pennsylvania advertising company called Victory Media, which also owns publications like G.I Jobs, Military Spouse, and STEM Jobs. Victory Media awards Military Friendly® status to schools after they fill out a proprietary survey that tests just how well they treat students with military backgrounds. According to the company’s website: “The Military Friendly® Schools survey is the longest-running most comprehensive review of college and university investments in serving military and veteran students. Our 2019-2020 Military Friendly® Schools list is more exclusive than ever, and covers institutions offering certificate programs to doctoral degrees.

Sounds great, right? Except in fact, the whole program is a pay-to-play scheme cooked up by a company interested in exploiting veterans and service members. Don’t take my word for it. Take a look at an October 2017 Inside Higher Ed article that covered ongoing “deceptive promotions” by Victory Media. The article originated from a Federal Trade Commission complaint filed by Veterans Education Success, a watchdog group devoted to protecting veterans’ interests in academe. The FTC investigation resulted in a settlement with Victory Media. The article notes: “Under the terms of the settlement, Victory is required to prominently disclose to readers that its rankings are paid endorsements. No financial penalty was included in the order, but each violation could result in a fine of up to $40,654.”

In 2016, Veterans Education Success issued a report on misleading websites and deceptive practices. It used Victory Media as a case study. Some of its findings are extremely disturbing:

  • In 2015, more than 257 schools awarded Military Friendly® status were not approved by the Department of Defense for Tuition Assistance or voluntary military education programs. (page 23)
  • There is no outside assessment of the Military Friendly® survey. Although Victory Media claims that its survey is validated by Ernst & Young auditors, the firm clarified that all it does is make sure Victory Media follows its own methodology. (page 17)
  • Schools pay Victory Media for “lead generators,” veterans’ personal information, for recruiting purposes. Veterans who initially register on the Victory Media website do not know this. (page 2)

Now, go back to the Kutztown University 2019 Military Friendly® award. Can you see any language “to prominently disclose to readers” that Victory Media’s rankings are “paid endorsements”? I didn’t. And that is the problem. A big one.

I’ll refer back to a quote included in the Inside Higher Ed article: “Service members and their families put themselves on the line every day to protect our nation,” the acting FTC chairwoman, Maureen K. Ohlhausen, said in a statement. “We owe it to them to make sure that when they look to further their education, they get straight talk instead of advertising in disguise.”

She has it exactly right. We celebrate anyone who serves for the best reasons. We recognize their sacrifices, the time away from family, the wounds and injuries, the lives lost. Most people understand this as a matter of common sense and basic virtue. 

Being “military friendly” is not a label to be purchased as part of a cynical marketing ploy. It is not supposed to be a transaction designed to treat a veteran like a tradable commodity. It definitely should not include universities that have been fined by the U.S. Department of Education for misleading students or under investigation by the FTC, the Veterans Administration, and various state attorneys general.

Schools like Kutztown University (or any of the other thirteen Pennsylvania state colleges and universities) owe veterans a few basic things. One is due diligence before entering into business relationships with predatory companies like Victory Media. About 30 minutes of research on Google revealed everything you have just read. Why my school did not meet even this basic standard baffles me.

But hindsight is easy. Moving forward, Kutztown needs to terminate its connection with Victory Media. Immediately.

More importantly, if a school like Kutztown University wants to be truly “military friendly,” it has obligations to meet, complicated, difficult tasks to fulfill in support of the military men and women in school right now. I’ll give you two examples.

Transfer credits. Veterans can receive credit for some of their military training. After years of waiting, Kutztown University finally produced a shortlist that addresses about two-dozen such courses. This effort doesn’t come close to the total number of military transfer courses successfully approved by the registrar, nor does it address constant delays that drag the approval process out for months. There is a lot of work to be done on this issue.

Psychological counseling. We are sadly familiar with the impact of PTSD, TBI (traumatic brain injury), and MST (military sexual trauma) on our veterans. Among the regular student body at KU seeking help from our counseling department, 48% reported suicidal thoughts in 2018. However, Kutztown University administrators have refused to address chronic staffing shortages that now produce a 3-4 week wait before students or student veterans can receive help. This is simply unacceptable. 

There are other tasks on the list. They all require hard work, good faith, and efforts that truly honor service. Not cheap lip service bought from a public relations firm. The choice seems obvious.

Stay tuned.

 

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