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Marketing or merit? Campus vets like services, but questions surround source of #1 “Military Friendly®” ranking

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An article in Mercer’s December 2016 issue of the Viking newsletter explained how the college had “been named the number one military-friendly school among all two-year colleges in the nation by Victory Media, a provider of informational resource material to U.S. active duty military personnel, veterans, and spouses.” The VOICE wrote about the award, too. But what does that ranking mean? How did we earn it? What standards are used to determine the winner?

In a report written by the independent non-profit group Veterans Education Success (VES) titled “Understanding Misleading Websites and ‘Lead Generators:’ A case Study: Victory Media’s ‘Military Friendly® Schools’” originally published in August 2016 and updated in February 2017, VES calls to question the standards and practices used by Victory Media to assign its rankings.

During an interview with The VOICE, Dr. Jianping Wang said that during her candidacy as President for MCCC a group of veterans approached her with a list of complaints, she promised to address them within two years’ time.

Dr. Wang said, “That was my pledge and we earned that title in one year, so it’s a really really big accomplishment for this college, the hard work and the staff.”

But the watchdog group that protects veterans says in their report that “Victory Media is a private, for-profit company that publishes several magazines (most notably GI Jobs), a website (militaryfriendly.com/schools) and a list promoting what it calls ‘Military Friendly® Schools.’ These lead veterans and military members to believe that the colleges promoted by Victory Media are good for service members. Unfortunately the opposite is too often true.”

The report also states, “The only schools to have more than 100 complaints in the GI Bill Feedback System are University of Phoenix, ITT Tech, Devry, and Colorado Technical Institute.  All are designated ‘Military Friendly®’ by Victory Media and promoted by Victory Media’s survey, search engine, and e-mail blasts.”

In fact, Mercer, too, has had three formal complaints lodged against it by student veterans that are currently noted on the VA’s website, vets.gov GI Bill comparison tool, which helps veterans seeking higher education options. Two complaints are regarding financial issues (Tuition/Fee Charges), and there is an additional complaint related to a change in degree plan/requirements.

Mercer student veteran Chris Molnar dismisses the complaints saying, “There is a lot of paperwork and back and forth between the VA and the school that has to happen for Veterans to get their benefits for school every semester and it gets really annoying. But Colonel Becker [Mercer’s Veterans Services director] and Tammy [his executive assistant] help a lot with whatever they can, and any time I have come to them pissed off or annoyed because something isn’t working or stuff is taking longer than it should, they help me out right away.”

Nevertheless, many community colleges that have veterans services programs have no formal complaints lodged against them with the VA and offer a broader variety of services on campus, such as health centers and daycare services, as four other community colleges in New Jersey do. This raises the question of what Victory Media’s criteria are for determining who goes on their Military Friendly list and in what order.

Victory Media’s website describes their current methodology saying, “we collect vast amounts of public and proprietary information; process this data using our methodology and weightings, which are established with the guidance of our Military Friendly® Advisory Council, and audited by EY (Ernst & Young); and rate institutions and organizations on how Military Friendly® they are.”

It does not specify what public and proprietary information they evaluate, but it seems unlikely that formal complaints with the VA are included.

One central aspect of the assessment of military friendliness is a free survey that schools can allow veterans to complete so the data can then be sent to Victory Media.

Mercer’s president, Dr. Jianping Wang, when asked how the college qualified for its ranking said: “Well it’s really the hard work of our staff. So [there] is a survey you need to fill out to do this. We got such a great response and that earn[ed] us the highest school [ranking]. That’s how we earned [it]. So it’s not like any secret or anything; it is just by a very simple survey.”

But of Mercer’s 146 student veterans and active duty military personnel it’s not clear what percent actually took or were aware of the survey.

Marine Corps veteran and former Editor in Chief of The VOICE Carl Fedorko says that he did not take a survey and was unaware of anyone else who had taken it, as he never heard any fellow veterans talking about it.

Likewise, Fire Science Major, and Army veteran, Barnabas Adombire, when asked if he had taken the survey stated, “Nope I didn’t…I also do not know what Victory Media is.”

Adombire says when he heard about Mercer’s number 1 ranking on the Military Friendly® list “My initial reaction was just like, ya know, obviously I was like ‘What? The whole nation? Thats pretty cool’. But then again I’m like ‘Well how did they achieve that?’…There’s a lot of colleges. [Mercer] being number one? That means they have to have really done other stuff that I don’t even know about.”

That’s not to say that Mercer’s veterans that The VOICE was able to interview did not have a positive view of the college’s services. Their reactions were universally positive, especially toward the director of services, John Becker.

Mercer has also received other accolades for its veterans services, such as the New Jersey Military Order of the Purple Heart given to Mercer during a ceremony this past September 11. The college is the first Purple Heart Community College in New Jersey.

Adombire says Becker and the Veterans Affairs office has made a point of creating a comfortable lounge for the student Veterans on campus, adding, “Knowing the people behind it, I can understand how they got [the ranking].”

But outside of improvements made to the office itself, Adombire was unable to name any significant changes to the services in the time since President Wang says she was approached by veterans with complaints before she took her position.

When The VOICE reached out to Sean Marvin, legal director of Veterans Success, the watchdog group, he responded to emailed questions about what Mercer’s number 1 ranking mean saying: “If your school’s ‘military friendly’ designation is from Victory Media, the next question is whether your school paid Victory Media for that designation.”

As a first step in that process The VOICE combed through each month’s official Board of Trustees Updates for the past year as these include financial updates and authorized payments to vendors. We also reviewed the school’s financial audits, but in both cases we were unable to find any listing of Victory Media under that name or any alternatives, such as “VMI” which is the designation they use on their email.

Marvin went on to say, “You would have to ask your school administration if they paid Victory Media/GI Jobs Magazine any money.”

To that end, The VOICE filed an Open Public Records (OPRA) request in March to find out if the college had, in fact, paid Victory Media for the ranking or for any other marketing services, but the request went unanswered.

According to the report done by Veterans Success, “Victory Media also makes money a second way: it operates a ‘pay-for-play’ scheme that promotes the colleges that pay Victory Media the most.”

With this information The VOICE was able to obtain rate cards from Victory Media from 2012 and 2015 that provide a fee structure. These do not indicate any pay-to-play information for how high on any list a school might pay to be ranked.

They do, however provide information entitled “Packages Offer Greatest Reach and Value”, which explains a star ranking system going from 1-5, where more stars offer better perks. The 2012 prices ranged from 1 star being offered at $9,900 and a 5 star rating being sold for $49,000. By 2015 the rates had increased to $14,900 for 1 star up to $59,900 for 5 star.

The ratings correspond to the marketing services provided such as “Preferred Search Results on militaryfriendlyschools.com,” print ads and “Enhanced Print Listing” in the Military Friendly® Schools publication, and “Run of Website Ads” and “Suggested Schools” listing also on the militaryfriendlyschools.com website.

When asked by The VOICE how MCCC reaches out to veterans to let them know about programs offered, President Wang said, “Oh yes, we are trying to publicise as much as we can and we also have our current satisfied veterans marketing for us.”

Without the public records requests information it is impossible to know the extent of Mercer’s relationship with Victory Media. Has the college paid for marketing and advertising to veterans? If so, has that influenced the college’s ranking on the Military Friendly® list? Or was the extent of the college’s interaction with the company simply the administration of a free survey to veterans that showed our college was the best?

UPDATE: On Oct. 19, 2017 Victory Media Inc. settled charges of violating Article 5 of the FTC Act made against them by the Federal Trade Commission. Allegations included complaints of “misleading representations regarding paid promotional content.” Read more about the settlement here. Access case documents including complaint, decision and settlement order here.

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LINKS TO ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Huffington Post – “Military-Branded Websites Push Veterans to Troubled For-Profit Colleges” (Feb. 2016) by David Halperin

U.S. Federal Trade Commission –  “FTC Staff Perspective on Lead Generation” (Sept. 15, 2016)

The New York Times –  “For-Profit Colleges, Vulnerable GIs” (Sep. 2011) by Hollister Petreaus

Glassdoor – Job board presenting jobs, salary information and reviews from former employees – Victory Media employees discuss pressure to up-sell

Victory Media Military Friendly® methodology description

 

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