Blog: The Miseducation of FRONTLINE

Last night, June 28, PBS’s FRONTLINE ran a segment titled Educating Sergeant Pantzke as a follow-up to last year’s report, College, Inc., which focused on debt and default rates at career colleges.

Educating Sergeant Pantzke introduces the viewer to three veterans trying to ease back into civilian life by using their GI Bill dollars at various career colleges.

Even the way in which the narrator intonates "one of those for-profit, mostly online colleges", reminded me of an elderly woman describing the Internet at the dawn of its reign — like, "Oh, I think I’ve heard of that. Those kids will come up with anything. Surely it won’t last." This in and of itself proved how far removed FRONTLINE is from the sector and how one-sided this ‘report’ would prove to be.

The show cites that more than a third of GI Bill dollars, with a 600 percent increase over the past couple of years, go to career colleges. FRONTLINE is so quick to blame “aggressive” and “misleading” recruiting techniques for these numbers that they’ve overlooked a crucial element – that while, yes, many soldiers are ready to push their tour of duty from their minds and move on to the next chapter of their lives, for many, the military becomes a lifestyle. A lifestyle in which location, hours, and responsibilities are unreliable month-to-month. A lifestyle in which a quickly-completed online program is a necessity.

At one point, a former career college enrollment officer testifies that he got disillusioned with enrolling veterans after many of them proved not to have the regiment, discipline or ability to follow through with earning their degree. That’s unfortunate, for sure, but if I was an enrollment rep, I’d likely think that of all people, veterans would possess these qualities. If they don’t, how is that the failing of the school? Are we really giving our soldiers such little credit to think that they can’t make these judgment calls for themselves, and are being swindled left and right?

The segment’s headliner, the admittedly heart-wrenching Sergeant Chris Pantzke, is a vet with PTSD who enrolled in an Art Institutes school and couldn’t keep up with his coursework, even after an admissions rep told him not to worry, that he’d be fine. The Art Institutes told FRONTLINE that they offered Sgt. Pantzke extensive tutoring at no charge, but this statement is dismissed with no response from Pantzke.

The segment continues on with what sounds like damning commentary from former career college employees, Senator Harkin, and disheartened former students.

It ends, however, with the information that Sgt. Pantzke has borrowed more money and is now re-enrolled in The Art Institutes, although he’s still worried about not being able to finish his degree.

Wait a minute. Even after being interviewed by reporters from Bloomberg and FRONTLINE about the horrors that befell him at a for-profit school, Sgt. Pantzke re-enrolls to finish his degree? And, according to FRONTLINE, the blame is still falling solely on the colleges. That’s just unfair. While Sgt. Pantzke and others may be able to claim that they were misinformed once, that claim won’t fly with a re-enrollment, especially for a veteran who has since been fully exposed to all the charges flung at for-profit schools.

At the heart, Frontline is a good show. They mean well. But this segment is one-sided and obviously out to prove a point. We know that many veterans graduate from our schools and go on to have the careers and lead the lives they’d intended. Career College Central’s 2010 publication What’s at Risk highlights just a small number of them. Just once, I wish an ‘expose’ like this would feature more than the disgruntled and delve into how a soldier’s life can change for the better as a result of for-profit education. Because no matter what happens with 90/10 military dollars, our schools are the right choice for thousands of veterans, and they shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed of that.

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