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Congress questions if service members are served by online classes

By Charley Keyes, CNN
  • A House subcommittee is looking at college classes taken by service members
  • Some 380,000 service members take courses part-time
  • $580 million of taxpayer money pays for them

Washington (CNN) -- From bases in Afghanistan and Iraq to hundreds of military installations around the United States, members of the U.S. military are spending off-duty hours hitting the books, booting-up their laptops and sitting in college classrooms.

Members of House panel, however, asked Wednesday if the courses are worth the $580 million a year of taxpayer money that pays for them and whether they deliver what is promised.

"It is an issue that has flared up in recent years. It is not going away," said Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Arkansas.

Snyder chairs the House Armed Services Committee's Oversight and Investigations subcommittee, which is looking at how for-profit and online colleges, as well as traditional non-profit colleges, are serving members of the military.

Some 380,000 service members take courses part-time, fitting them in around their work and deployment schedules. The government offers to pay up to $4,500 per individual a year for the classes.

Rep. Walter Jones, R-North Carolina, said he is concerned that the government may not be getting what it is paying for and that service members may be misled about the quality of instruction they receive, especially from online colleges.

"How do you keep the good and weed out the bad," Jones asked. "How can the taxpayer be ensured the military is getting quality education and not being taken advantage of?"

The subcommittee heard from representatives of the Pentagon and the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.

Deputy Under Secretary of Defense Robert Gordon testified that education helps the members of the military become better thinkers and better leaders.

Only colleges accredited through the Department of Education can receive the federal subsidy. And the various services have different rules to monitor the programs and provide counseling about how service members can pursue their studies.

Gordon said the Defense Department has developed a new system, formally known as MIVER for Military Installation Voluntary Education Review, for outside evaluation of education programs.

"It is a recognition that the world has changed, Gordon said about the new system.

The review plans have been published by the government and the public can now make comments.

"We are expanding that now," he said, "and our expectation is that we successfully will be able to use that to review and monitor and oversee these education institutions, regardless if they are online, off-post or on-post."