The Post-9/11 GI Bill was designed to help veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan pay for an education.
But in Augusta, it’s the for-profit private schools that are raking in taxpayer dollars, charging a tuition that in some cases is five times higher than the area’s larger public universities and colleges.
On average, an education at an online school costs $6,800 per semester, a total that soars in comparison to the full-time workload of 12 credit hours students can get at Georgia Regents University ($2,360) and Augusta Technical College ($1,200), records show.
The gap in cost has enabled Web-based programs to snag more than half of the $25 million of free tuition veterans and their families received in Augusta between 2009 and 2012, according to data from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
To do it, the schools, which include the University of Phoenix, Virginia College, Miller-Motte Technical College and Strayer and Troy universities, only had to educate 40 percent of the 2,310 people awarded a GI Bill in the Augusta-Aiken area.
While the higher rates lead to larger profits, they have raised questions of whether federal financial aid is being used to its best purpose.
Carol Giardina says it is, but she can only speak to Georgia Regents University, where she’s employed as the director of Military and Veteran Services.
“One of the things that we say in the University System of Georgia is that we have one of the most reasonable tuition rates in the nation, which is why we can educate more students for fewer dollars,” Giardina said.
Over the past four years, Georgia Regents has had 577 students attend on the GI Bill, more than any school. But the $5.3 million it collected from veteran families was second to Strayer University, which collected $6.5 million from 352 students.
“We try to keep costs low,” Giardina said. “Even though the student does not have to pay, the government does and this makes (federal financial aid) dollars go farther.”
According to Strayer University’s Web site, it can cost a full-time undergraduate student $1,700 per course. That’s more than what an Augusta Tech student pays for 12 credit hours, plus $500, said Beverly Smyre-Hines, the college’s financial aid director.
“Our cost of tuition is much lower than colleges in the area, which is a benefit to students who are not 100 percent funded by the Post-9/11 GI Bill,” Smyre-Hines said.
The GI Bill covers all tuition at public schools, and up to $17,000 per year at private schools, which officials say primarily has higher tuition rates because it does not receive any funding from state legislatures.
To make its tuition more affordable, the University of Phoenix closed 115 of its main campuses and smaller satellite learning centers in October to shift its focus toward the more popular online degree.
The move helped shave $700 off some degree prices and put more resources into the school’s military division, which is led by a retired Army colonel and staffed with former military officers to advise veterans, said Ryan Rauzon, University of Phoenix spokesman.
“We are best known, especially in the military community, for our online courses,” Rauzon said. “That’s our main selling point.”
Rauzon questioned the VA’s numbers, saying that the data does not differentiate between in-classroom and online students, or separate by specific cohort or field of study.
“In some cases, it only looks at first-time, full-time students attending college with zero credit hours and ignores those who have previously completed classes, which is a vast majority of our students,” Rauzon said.
The VA backed its figures, saying in an e-mail to The Augusta Chronicle that the difference in net benefits between public and private schools is “generally about cost.”