MIAMI (AP) - "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 House 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