Sgt. Pantzke: “I Just Want To Be Able To Start Over”

October 25, 2011

You may remember Sgt. Chris Pantzke, the retired Iraq war veteran who was featured in our recent film bearing his name. Educating Sergeant Pantzke investigated whether for-profit colleges are providing a quality education to veterans using their GI Bill money.

After his military service, Pantzke enrolled in an online photography program at The Art Institutes. He was nervous about whether he’d be able to cut it — he suffers from a traumatic brain injury [TBI], caused by a car bomb blast in Iraq, and post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD]. He says the school told him he’d be taken care of and not to worry, but after struggling with his classes, he eventually flunked out.

Shortly before our June broadcast, The Art Institutes told FRONTLINE they had re-admitted Pantzke.

But last week, Chris Pantzke formally withdrew from the school, stating in a letter that “being a student at this Institution will not yield a gratifying and successful career as a photographer.” He also cited what he felt was a lack of disability services.

I spoke to Pantzke about his decision and his future, about which he seemed upbeat. But most of all, he feels relief: “I feel a lot less stressed,” he told me, expressing excitement about exploring educational opportunities at state schools and on his own time.

“Being a soldier, you don’t want to quit, you don’t want to give up or fail,” he explained. But after doing his own research, Pantzke concluded that the degree he was pursuing wasn’t “worth much more than the paper is worth.” And he felt he was “throwing away taxpayer money” by using GI Bill funds.

According to a recent report by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee [HELP], 24 percent of GI Bill money went to for-profit institutions in the past year. Out of the top 10 schools receiving these funds, eight are for-profits.

“The post-9/11 GI Bill education benefit is intended to be a gateway to opportunity for those who have bravely served our country,” said Sen. Tom Harkin [D-Iowa], who chairs the HELP committee.  “But I am concerned that many of those who use their one-time benefit at a for-profit college are being denied the chance to get a good education and begin a fulfilling career.”

Calls to the Education Management Corporation [EDMC], The Art Institute’s parent company, were not returned. But in an April 2010 letter to FRONTLINE, the company contends that the school tried to help Pantzke, offering him and others “extensive and variable tutoring services, at no charge, ranging from self-directed to live interactive support.”

In the end, it didn’t work out for Chris Pantzke, who conveyed a message for other veterans: “If they’re going to go to a for-profit, call employers, see if they’ll accept an online degree. Compare with state institutions and community colleges, and classes on [your military] post. Do your research first before jumping in both feet like I did.”

Most of all, though, he wants another shot at his education: “I just want to be able to start over.”

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