Key questions for Coast Guard personnel in evaluating financial and enrollment practices of academic institutions:
As colleges step up their marketing efforts among servicemembers and as these efforts become more sophisticated, it may be timely to call attention to some emerging financial and enrollment practices of academic institutions and to ask whether these practices are consistent with Coast Guard tuition assistance policies and whether they serve the best interests of Coast Guard personnel. Some emerging institutional practices lend themselves to jeopardizing a member's financial standing and, consequently, their military career if not carefully evaluated.
It may also be timely to note that, whether an institution is "military friendly" is not simply a matter of the successful marketing of the cost and accessibility of their programs, but it is also a matter of the success of their students, the strength of their faculty and the quality of their programs. Increasingly, marketing efforts to servicemembers tend to focus on cost and access while many of our full time Education Services Officers grow concerned about quality and appropriateness of degree programs.
In some instances, the marketing efforts of academic institutions may be outsourced and out of touch with standard academic practices raising serious questions of appropriateness and ethics with regard to the military student. These concerns need to be brought to the attention of military program directors at the respective institutions, so that they can be remedied.
In matters of Coast Guard tuition assistance policy, Coast Guard personnel are always advised to seek the advice of their full time ESO and they are referred to the Coast Guard Institute web site.
Finally, a degree plan or SOCCOAST student agreement is consistent with accepted academic practices and Coast Guard voluntary education policy and is actively encouraged.
The following are specific financial and enrollment practices that may require increased attention by Coast Guard personnel seeking their college degree:
- Financial Contract for a Degree. Does the institution
require a servicemember to sign a financial contract for a degree up
front (sometimes this is called an "education agreement" but it resembles a consumer contract and reads more like an installment plan for education)? This agreement commits the member to take a series of courses (sometimes an entire "degree package"), and applies withdrawal fees if the member decides not to continue in the program or wants to withdraw from a specific course.
- Automatic Enrollment. Does the institution have an "automatic enrollment" policy in which the servicemembers sign up for pre-determined courses or even a whole program, requiring them to formally withdraw or else pay a fee? Members may inadvertently sign on to a whole program without noting that they have to "opt out" of courses if they change their minds, otherwise they will be invoiced. These policies can be confusing and burdensome for a busy servicemembers who may be unaware of what they are actually signing and the obligations they will incur.
- Transparency of Financial Obligations. Is it easy for servicemembers
to find out what their financial obligations would be if they chose to earn
a degree at a specific institution? Can they readily access information on
accreditation, whether the degree program operates on a quarter hour or semester
hour system, and the tuition costs per credit? Institutions that understand
military tuition assistance policies generally provide easy links to this information.
- Personal Contact Information. Does the institution link information about
degree programs with a request for personal contact information? Servicemembers
should be able to access this information without providing any personal contact
information. These requests for personal contact information may subject the
member to invasive marketing practices.
- Special Incentives for Military Students. Does the institution link enrollment
to special incentives for military members e.g. if the member refers
additional students, are they offered tuition discounts, or "free" courses. Are multiple course enrollments linked to offers of "free" computers and other technologies, special discounts, limited time tuition grants or special benefits for spouses? These practices may be legal but they are too often misleading. They may also be unethical because they can deter or divert a member from pursuing their legitimate academic needs and goals.
- Enrollment, Cancellation and Re-Enrollment Policies. Does
the institution have their enrollment, cancellation and re-enrollment
policies in writing,
readily accessible and published in their current catalog? Conflicts
over these matters can be non-negotiable after the fact. Information
about these policies
in advance of registration should be requested as part of the college
advising process, especially for the deployed servicemember.
- Sub-Contracting Arrangements. Is the institution that does the invoicing for Tuition Assistance and issues your grade, the same institution that has enrolled you in the course? Some colleges will "sub-contract" courses to other schools for delivery of content. For CG TA, the institution that invoices and issues a grade for a course must be the same as the one from which the member is actually taking the course.