Pentagon Rolls Out New Tuition Assistance Tool

House lawmakers have passed legislation barring GI Bill payments to to schools that award bonuses or fees in connection with student recruiting. The practice saw veterans lured into schools that failed to meet their education needs.

A new web-based Defense Department education tool is designed to help service members navigate higher education choices for using tuition assistance or their GI Bill. 

TA Decide, launched on the Defense Department's DoDMOU.com site April 17, aggregates information from several federal agencies about higher education options, their costs, use and course completion rates among service members.

Most service members using the DoD's tuition assistance (TA) programs are part-time students balancing school with deployments, training schedules and military moves, Dawn Bilodeau, head of the DoD's voluntary education program, told Military.com. While she said similar tools exist for non-service members, no tool had been specifically designed to help troops compare education choices for those unique needs.

"We saw a need to tailor and provide something to our student population because ... there just isn't information out there readily available to help our service members," Bilodeau said.

For-profit colleges and universities have come under heavy fire from lawmakers in recent years for aggressive marketing and recruitment to service members whose tuition assistance money and GI Bill funding can mean big business for the institutions. A 2014 Senate report, for example, stated that for-profit schools pulled in about $1.7 billion in GI Bill funds during 2012-2013 -- about $640 million more than in 2009-2010.

The President's 2016 budget proposal included a request to close a loophole that allows such institutions to receive unlimited GI Bill and TA payments.

The tool aggregates the information of 2,600 education and training providers that have signed a memorandum of understanding with the DoD. It provides information on how many service members are using the school through TA funding, how many are using it with their GI Bill, available degree programs, average costs, completion rates and complaint data as well as other information.

The tool also allows service members to compare up to three different institutions side-by-side.

Bilodeau said the TA Decide tool, which cost the DoD about $125,000 to build, could save the department money over time by helping service members avoid colleges and universities with poor completion rates. 

"Right now service members enroll in programs based on inaccurate or not enough information," Bilodeau said. "We're hoping that this tool ... will give them the information they need right up front so they don't waste those valuable dollars."

-- Amy Bushatz can be reached at amy.bushatz@military.com

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