MIAMI – "Unleash the dog trainer inside you," urges an ad for the online Animal Behavior College, which makes no bones about whom it's trying to recruit. In television and online ads, it speaks directly to military spouses. The message: You may be able to attend for free.
The ads are working. In three years, 2,255 military spouses have enrolled, and the college has collected more than $2.7 million in taxpayer-funded spousal education benefits from the Pentagon — among the most of any school in a program called the Military Spouse Career Advancement Accounts, or MyCAA.
But three years into the MyCAA program, concerns are growing that it's been caught up in a broader gold rush by for-profit colleges to recruit students with military ties and cash the taxpayer-financed tuition checks they carry with them
As the Iraq and Afghanistan wars began winding down in recent years, Congress passed a series of substantial education benefits. The best-known was the post-9/11 version of the G.I. Bill, which updated the original version that put much of the post-World War II generation through college and helped fuel the country's postwar economic prosperity.
MyCAA was a small part of that broader effort, created by the Pentagon to support military wives and husbands. The benefit was seen as long overdue, considering the strains spouses endured during the wars and their high rates of unemployment. It was also a retention tool; by giving spouses a career boost, families might have more stability to stick with a military career.
But MyCAA has become particularly worrisome. Overall, 60 percent of federal education money for military wives and husbands has gone to for-profit schools, compared to 38 percent for the G.I. Bill in the 2011 fiscal school year. Neither program requires schools to be accredited; they only need to be approved by a state agency. And the Pentagon isn't tracking how many MyCAA beneficiaries have earned a degree or found employment.
"The Department of Defense is not doing enough to really oversee this program," said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which raised concerns about MyCAA in a recent report.
Another concern: Academically, the military spouse benefit is more limiting than other military education benefits including the GI Bill. It can be used only to pursue an occupational credential or an associate's degree, not a bachelor's or graduate degree. That keeps costs down, but sends a grating message to some, especially after the program — originally open to all military spouses — was limited to the wives and husbands of junior service members.
"I know many spouses who are junior ranks who want to achieve something more than an associate's degree," said Bianca Strzalkowski, a Marine Corps wife named "Military Spouse of the Year" in 2011 and who has traveled around the country speaking about education issues.
Strzalkowski said there has been an outcry among spouses over both MyCAA's restrictions and its lack of oversight.
"We usually have the same exact aspirations in life as our service members," Strzalkowski said. "The same skill set. If you are going to hold them to a certain standard, hold us to the same standard and make it an effective program."
The Animal Behavior College was started in 1998 by Steve Appelbaum, who previously ran a nationwide dog training business. Students start off with online readings and written assignments, and then are assigned by the school to an externship, with either a mentor dog trainer or at a veterinary hospital in their community.
Appelbaum said the model is a natural fit for military spouses because it can be done from anywhere. The program costs about $3,000; military spouses comprise less than 25 percent of their total business, he said.
"It's still a good chunk of students but it's certainly not what the school is living on," Appelbaum said.
Prisca Crisp, 25, used MyCAA to enroll in the school's dog training and veterinary assistant programs and graduated in 2010. Since then, she's approached six different animal hospitals looking for employment but has not found a job in the field.
"I've been going online and posting my resume everywhere," Crisp said.
Twenty-five percent of military spouses are unemployed, about three times higher than for the general population, according to the Department of Defense. Most want to work, but holding a steady job is challenging. Military families move frequently, leading to short-term employment and gaps in resumes. And some career fields can be harder to continue in certain parts of the country.
Pursuing a college degree can be just as challenging. Strzalkowski herself has enrolled in five different colleges since 1999, starting at a new school each time her family was transferred, and often finding her previous credits weren't accepted.
"I have taken an intro to business course at three different schools," she said.
The MyCAA program is designed to help spouses find a "portable" career — a job in a high growth, high demand industry with likely openings no matter where they are stationed. That can include everything from baker or cosmetologist to mechanic or librarian.
Three years in, more than 3,000 schools have been approved to receive MyCAA dollars and 147,432 spouses have enrolled in courses. Department of Defense figures indicate course persistence is quite high: Spouses successfully completed 87 percent of the courses they were enrolled in during the 2011 fiscal year. However, the Pentagon doesn't yet know how that translates into degrees and certificates awarded, or job placement rates.
"You have to assume, I guess, and maybe this is wrong, but those that are using the funds for an occupational license or credential, that's what the funds are actually used for, to obtain that license or credential," said Aggie Byer, director for military spouse education at the department. But, she said, a thorough review is under way.
Part of the reason why there isn't data on outcomes like number of degrees granted and graduation rates is that many of the programs are not overseen by the U.S. Department of Education. Because schools like Animal Behavior College do not collect Title IV financial aid from the government, they are exempt from outcome-tracking as well as other federal regulations designed to protect students.
Harkin noted military spouses have just one chance to receive the benefit, and could be left at a significant disadvantage if, for example, they later try to transfer to a two- or four-year college degree program and find their credits aren't accepted.
"This money really should be used to help these spouses to go community colleges, for example, or to get a quality online program that is approved and accredited," Harkin said.
For spouses like Ivanna Fernandez, whose husband is in the Air Force and currently deployed in Qatar, the MyCAA benefit is one of their only opportunities to get some form of higher education paid for by the military.
The 20-year-old Florida native has moved twice with her husband, working odd jobs and caring for the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel puppy her mother-in-law gave her as a wedding gift.
Last year, she went online to search for a dog trainer school. The Animal Behavior College was the first result that popped up. The school's website prominently displays information on how military spouses can apply.
"They leave a little box for you to put your number in, and someone calls you almost within the next 10 minutes," Fernandez said.
Appelbaum, ABC's founder, said the school had not applied for Title IV approval because the relatively low price means most students don't need to take out financial aid to attend. The only approval the college has received is from the California Bureau of Private Postsecondary Education, which does a review of the school's financial resources, faculty, and enrollment agreements, said Russ Heimerich, spokesman for the California Department of Consumer Affairs.
Appelbaum said the school discloses to students that neither a dog training nor a vet assistant certificate is needed to pursue a career in either field. He said a certificate nonetheless helps open doors when seeking employment.
"If you spend 100 hours working at veterinary hospitals, assuming you don't get hired at that hospital, you are going to have a much easier time getting hired than if you just walk in off the street," he said.
Crisp, whose husband has been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, said the hospital where she did an externship wanted to keep her on staff but wasn't hiring at the time. She was told she'd get a call back but never did.
In the meantime, she's been working as a pharmacy technician, a field in which she earned a certificate from a community college before claiming her MyCAA benefit. She is doing some dog training on her days off and still has hopes of finding full-time work in the field.
"I just don't want to give up just yet," she said.
Others have had more luck. Sarah Casey, a military wife living near Seattle, found a job at a dog training and daycare facility within two months of moving to her family's current post. She had prior experience working at dog kennels and vet clinics, but still thinks getting the certificate was helpful.
"I gained a lot of knowledge," Casey said.
Fernandez was pleased with her course at ABC, but said she was never told that a certificate wasn't necessary to pursue a dog training career.
"I wasn't aware of that," she said. But, she added: "I wouldn't be able to be a dog trainer, though, without the program."
Fernandez is putting her hopes into making dog training a sustainable career. She's currently shadowing a mentor dog trainer assigned to her by the school and later plans to volunteer at a shelter. College isn't out of the question — but for that, she'll have to find money elsewhere.