Veterans, Scams, and Higher Education in Pennsylvania

Marketing to veterans is as old as war. But misleading marketing to veterans should be unacceptable.
Photo by Felicia Buitenwerf on Unsplash

**A correction was made in the first paragraph to show that the VA reversed its decision to suspend new enrollment at the University of Phoenix, as well as noting that University of Phoenix did not pay $50 million in fines. We apologize, and regret the error.**

Scams perpetrated against veterans are an equally old story, particularly with respect to their education. For profit institutions like the University Phoenix made millions from the modern day G.I. Bill, but also, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC): “scammed its students by luring them in with false job placement promises.” The company ultimately reached a $191 million settlement for “allegedly deceptive advertisements” and the FTC refunded $50 million to students. In March 2020, the Veterans Administration officially announced plans to suspend new enrollment in the University of Phoenix due to practices that were: “erroneous, deceptive or misleading either by actual statement, omission, or intimation against G.I. Bill beneficiaries.” The VA eventually reversed this decision.

A similar scandal touched the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE). Back in 2019, on the Raging Chicken website (now a podcast), I wrote an article about Victory Media, a company found to be engaged in some very dubious business affecting student veterans. 

The story starts with the marketing of “military friendly” credentials to veterans interested in going to college. The actual term Military Friendly® is owned by a Pennsylvania advertising company called Victory Media. According to the company website: “Military Friendly® is the standard that measures an organization’s commitment, effort and success in creating sustainable and meaningful opportunity for the military community.”

Victory Media regularly awards the Military Friendly® label to organizations after they fill out a proprietary survey that tests just how well they treat customers with military backgrounds. Some of the companies awarded this status include AT&T, Comcast, and Boeing, among many others. Many colleges and universities also use the label as a recruiting tool for veterans. According to Victory Media: “The Military Friendly® Schools survey is the longest-running most comprehensive review of college and university investments in serving military and veteran students. Our 2022-2023 Military Friendly® Schools list is more exclusive than ever and covers institutions offering certificate programs to doctoral degrees.”

Monetizing any type of support for veterans is debatable on the face of it. However, it did not take that long for deeper problems with Victory Media to emerge. 

In 2017, the non-profit group Veterans Education Success (VES) filed a complaint with the FTC regarding some of Victory Media’s specific business practices. VES noted that 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. More disturbing was Victory Media’s practice of selling “lead generators,” veterans’ personal information to colleges for recruiting purposes without their knowledge or consent.

A subsequent FTC investigation resulted in a settlement with Victory Media. 

“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,” Inside Higher Ed noted in 2017.

Despite the relatively mild penalty, federal officials offered a pointed rebuke of Victory Media practices. “Service members and their families put themselves on the line every day to protect our nation,” the then 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.”

One good result at my own Kutztown University was local management’s decision to sever their relationship with Victory Media and take down the “Veteran Friendly” endorsement that regularly appeared on our school website each year.

I talked to a few administrators about the Victory Media and was hopeful at the time that other Pennsylvania state system schools would jump on the bandwagon and protect their own student veterans.

As it turns out, I was badly mistaken.

Aside from Kutztown, Victory Media remains firmly and publicly entrenched in most of the state system.

As of this writing, Bloomsburg University, California University of Pennsylvania, Clarion University (“Silver” status) East Stroudsburg University, Edinboro University (also “Silver” status) Indiana University of Pennsylvania (a “Top Ten” school), Mansfield University, Millersville University (“Silver”) Shippensburg University, Slippery Rock University (“Gold” status)  West Chester University (“Gold”) are all continuing their relationship with Victory Media.

In fact, PASSHE Chancellor Dan Greenstein congratulated these schools for this recognition in his 2022-2023 appropriations request.

There are reputable institutions that endorse schools for their treatment of student veterans. One of the most prestigious awards is the “Best for Vets” designation by Military Times, a highly respected publication founded in 1940. Every year, Military Times issues a comprehensive survey to participating colleges. It evaluates accreditation, eligibility for Department of Defense tuition assistance, retention rates, and school assistance to cover gaps in G.I. Bill aid, among many other important factors. 

In other words, there is a right way to do this.

Americans will celebrate Veterans Day in a few weeks and rightly so. We will celebrate in ways that range from parades to business discounts, to a simple and sincere “Thank you for your service.”

The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education might consider basic due diligence as its best tribute to student veterans.

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Picture of Dr. Michael D. Gambone

Dr. Michael D. Gambone

Dr. Michael D. Gambone is the author of nine books, including most recently Modern Conspiracies in America: Separating Fact from Fiction (2022) and The New Praetorians: Modern American Veterans, Society, and Service in the Forever War (2021). Dr. Gambone is a veteran of the 82nd Airborne Division. In 2006, he deployed to Iraq as a Department of the Army contractor and served in the city of Mosul. He earned his PhD in History from the University of Chicago and is currently a professor of history at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania.

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