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New 'military friendly' colleges list aims to weed out 'the noise,' 'bad actors'

The fourth annual list of “military friendly” colleges – published this week by a veteran-owned company – is as fascinating to peruse to see which schools earn that title as it is for noting which universities are absent.

Using a weighted scoring system and reviews penned by veteran-students – then independently audited by accounting giant Ernst & Young – the 2013 “G.I. Jobs” list includes 1,700 American colleges.

That means about 10,000 schools currently authorized by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to accept GI Bill money failed to make the cut.

“Some people are of the opinion that ‘VA approval’ for colleges is a measure of military friendliness. But I would point to the math, from 12,000 schools with VA approval to our 1,700, and assert that we’re able to provide value by offering a list of the schools that have the best leading practices,” said Sean Collins, vice president of Victory Media, publisher of the list.

“The is a premier subset,” added Collins, a U.S. Navy veteran. “We are the answer to the question: ‘What is military friendly?’"

In fact, Victory Media even trademarked the term “military friendly.” Owning the phrase is wise – and perhaps necessary – when numerous universities are stamping themselves “military friendly” in the chase for money from the freshly improved Post-9/11 G.I. Bill – about $9 billion this year to help some 600,000 veterans work toward degrees.

“Unfortunately, whenever government benefits are entered into any market, you get people that move in and try to be opportunistic,” Collins said. “So we want to make sure we are differentiated from anyone who’s new in this space and make sure our resources are world class.”

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Victory Media, which calls its list America’s most stringent and transparent inventory of schools catering to veterans, grades the universities on nine criteria, including “military support on campus,” “academic credibility” and the portion of military students enrolled.

Those criteria are assessed through a survey the company makes available to all of the 12,000 VA-approved colleges. This year, about half of those schools opted to complete and send back the free questionnaires, Collins said. And from that group of about 6,000, Victory Media used its assessment methodology to hone its list down to 15 percent of all the VA-approved institutions.

“We keep the threshold at 15 percent because we feel that’s enough schools to give people freedom of choice but also an elite tier,” Collins said. “So if you’re on our ship, you’ve been evaluated by us – and found worthy by a third-party entity,” he added. “If you’re not, I think that says something as well ... There also are bad actors and schools that (sell themselves as veteran-friendly but) return less than the desired return on investment.

"These 1,700 schools raised their hand and committed time and resources necessary for filling out survey. They are stepping forward and participating in our process because they want to be measured and differentiated from what I will call the noise."

The publishers purposely opted not to rank the 1,700 colleges because, Collins said, picking a higher-ed school is an individual choice and should be based on an array of unique factors, such as: does the school offer night classes, weekend sessions, or in-state tuition breaks for veterans? (The online list can be sorted and then personalized). 

Schools that made the list
Who made it for 2013? NBC News randomly checked four major college conferences to analyze which schools earned the “military friendly” designation.

In the Southeastern Conference, 13 schools are included – all but Vanderbilt University.

In the Pac-12 Conference, every member earned a spot, although at Stanford University, only that school’s Center for Professional Development is mentioned.

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In the Big Ten Conference, 11 universities are on the list; Northwestern University is not.

In the Ivy League, Columbia and Dartmouth made the cut; at Cornell, only the graduate school of management is mentioned; Brown, Harvard, Yale, Penn and Princeton didn’t rate inclusion.

But the publishers acknowledged that data-driven lists alone are somewhat soulless. Victory Media solicits personal reviews from veteran students and incorporates those intimate analyses into its report. (This year, there are about 3,000 student surveys for prospective students to read).

“They’re the exact subset of the student population that service members are looking for,” Collins said. “They give an actual boots-on-the-ground perspective. Nothing touches a personal recommendation.”

One veteran's experience
Air Force veteran Erik Thompson, 34, enrolled last year in the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh after checking out all of the research done by Collins and his colleagues.

“When I decided to return to business school the very first thing I did was visit the G.I. Jobs Military Friendly School list,” said Thompson, who served in Iraq and three other countries. “One of the great things about the site is it allows you to not only access the list, but many schools have students who have created profiles where they talk about their experience as a veteran attending a particular MBA school.

“Having been out of the military for close to six years, the thing I miss the most is the camaraderie,” Thompson said. “Going through basic training, military-career training, deployments, and living all over the world level-sets all military members. No matter where you are from - or your race, religion, or sex - military members all have something in common. The Tepper School of Business does a tremendous job in replicating this camaraderie.”

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