• October 21, 2014

Defense Dept.'s New Agreement on Tuition Aid Waters Down Controversial Rules

Under pressure from higher-education groups, the Department of Defense has issued a watered-down version of final requirements that colleges must meet if they want to enroll active-duty members of the military through a federal student-aid program.

The Pentagon on Thursday released a new version of the Memorandum of Understanding that governs the department's Tuition Assistance Program. The new agreement replaces a series of mandatory policies for colleges with requirements that they merely disclose their policies.

In the original version of the memorandum, all participating colleges would have been required to follow guidelines written by the Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges, a consortium of colleges that cater to veterans and members of the armed services. Those guidelines included a 25-percent cap on residency requirements, as well as rules governing transfer of credit, placement by examination, and prior-learning credit.

Under the new agreement, an institution that is not already a member of the consortium will no longer have to adhere to those guidelines. Instead, such an institution will be required to disclose, before a student's enrollment, its credit-transfer policies, any academic residency requirements, and basic information about a program's total cost. The colleges will be required to provide a service member with access to an institutional financial-aid adviser before his or her enrollment.

The new agreement also requires all institutions to ban incentive compensation for its recruiters, financial-aid advisers, and admissions counselors. Colleges must also "refrain from high-pressure recruitment tactics," which include "making multiple unsolicited phone calls" to prospective students.

The memorandum explicitly leaves to the discretion of colleges the key decisions about how certain credits are awarded and how transfer credits are accepted and applied.

Such requirements in the original memorandum were a major sticking point for higher-education groups, which said the standards would impinge on their autonomy. The American Council on Education, for instance, deemed the original rules "incompatible with well-established academic policies and academic practices."

The council did not immediately respond to a request for comment on its views of the new memorandum.

The memorandum was first proposed in March 2011, after Congressional investigators said the Defense Department was not properly overseeing the millions of dollars being awarded through the Tuition Assistance Program to active-duty service members.

Facing a backlash from colleges and members of Congress, the Pentagon last year delayed carrying out the terms of the original memorandum. Colleges will now have until March 1, 2013, to sign the new version of the agreement.

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