Justin Pope

In press releases and ads, colleges love boasting they’re “military friendly” and “veterans friendly” — and that isn’t just because veterans are usually good students and campus leaders.

It’s also because the newly expanded Post 9/11 G.I. Bill will pay colleges of all types around $9 billion this year to educate nearly 600,000 veterans, and virtually every school wants to expand its slice of that pie.

But some schools touting their spots on proliferating lists of “military friendly” colleges found in magazine guides and websites have few of the attributes educators commonly associate with the claim, such as accepting military credits or having a veterans organization on campus. Many are for-profit schools with low graduation rates.

The designations appear on rankings whose rigor varies but whose methods are under fire. Often, they’re also selling ads to the colleges. Some websites help connect military and veteran students with degree programs that might match their interests, but don’t disclose they are lead aggregators paid by the institutions — often for-profit colleges — whose programs they highlight.

“They’re not real rankings,” said Tom Tarantino, a veteran who is deputy policy director of the advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “What they are is advertisement catalogues.” Labeling them “a huge problem,” he called for standards to be established for proper use of the term “military friendly” schools.

There are signs something like that might happen. But as with the U.S. News & World Report college rankings, demand for signaling devices to help consumers shortcut complicated choices could make such lists tough to dislodge. Many experts say the lists are symptoms of a wider problem: Service members aren’t getting the advice they need to make sound decisions on using the substantially expanded education benefits. It’s no surprise businesses are stepping into that void.

At a large military education conference last month in Florida, some educators criticized the lists and pushed for a sharpened definition of “military friendly” colleges, to be developed either by the federal government or an education coalition called Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges.

Meanwhile, Washington is paying increasing attention to the broader problem of veterans getting reliable guidance. In recent weeks a slew of bills on the subject have surfaced.

The latest, unveiled Tuesday by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is called the “G.I. Bill Consumer Awareness Act” and would push colleges and the Department of Veterans Affairs to disclose more information on questions like licensing and job placement rates, and to develop policies to prevent misleading marketing.

Another bill would boost education counseling resources at the department, and separately, 14 senators have asked the department to trademark the term “G.I. Bill” so it will have more power to crack down on misleading advertising.

Officials at other institutions say they don’t like the lists but can’t afford not to be on them, for fear of appearing “military unfriendly.”

But for some lesser-known colleges, such lists can get their names in front of prospective students — which, they say, expands veterans’ horizons. Last year, when G.I. Jobs magazine published its list, a flurry of colleges shared the news in press releases.

“We certainly aren’t going to change the landscape of our campus by seeking out tons of veterans but we wanted to make sure we were giving them every opportunity and making this transition easier for them,” said Sarah Palace, assistant dean for adult enrollment at one school that put out such a release, the College of Notre Dame in Ohio (not to be confused with the larger University of Notre Dame in Indiana, which also put out a release).

The South Euclid college has only about 20 full-time veteran students but hopes to recruit more. Palace listed practices she says make the place military friendly: encouraging transfers, examining military transcripts and working with a local veterans service center.