After years on Capitol Hill helping secure legislation to protect veterans and service members from predatory for-profit colleges, Carrie Wofford founded Veterans Education Success in 2013 — and she and her staff have never been busier. They provide free legal services and college and career counseling to veterans and members of the military. They conduct research on student veteran success and GI Bill participation. And they are constantly working with Congress and the Department of Veterans Affairs to fight against colleges looking to make a profit off those who served their country.
Veterans Education Success has only gotten busier since the coronavirus crisis upended life around the globe. There has been an uptick in veterans reaching out to the group as people shelter in place at home and have more time to seek out help. And Wofford and her staff have been working around the clock to get legislation passed through Congress addressing the needs of student veterans — allowing the GI Bill to be used at colleges that have switched to online courses during the pandemic and halting debt collection by the VA during the crisis, a measure that is still pending.
Amid juggling the bigger workload, Wofford paused to talk with Arnold Ventures about the services provided by Veterans Education Success, what caused the VA to finally crack down on predatory for-profit colleges, and why scams targeting veterans are likely to increase after the pandemic.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What are currently the biggest scams out there targeting veterans seeking an education?
There are so many. Many schools, largely for-profit colleges, lie to veterans about nearly every aspect of the college in order to get veterans to enroll. They lie about tuition. They lie about how much the GI Bill will cover. They’ll lie about student loans; they’ll even take out student loans in the student’s name without the student’s knowledge. They’ll lie about the course offerings, lie about the quality of the faculty and the teaching, lie about everything.
But probably one of the lies that is most damaging that people don’t know about is they will often lie about their accreditation and their graduate’s eligibility to work in specific fields. So, for example, you cannot work as a registered nurse in America unless you are licensed by the state in which you’re seeking to work. The school will lie about their accreditation and say, “Our school is licensed and accredited by the nursing bodies and you will be able to work as a registered nurse.” Or they will say, “You should come to our social work school; you will be able to work as a licensed social worker in the public schools,” or “If you come to our Ph.D. program, you will be able to work as a licensed psychologist.” And that is not true.
So imagine that you have your one shot at the GI Bill and you want to be a nurse or you want to be a licensed psychologist or you want to be a social worker in the public schools, and you’re told that if you give up all your money and GI Bill and take out lots of loans, you will be able to get that. You go and waste your two years of time, and then you graduate and find out that none of it was true. That, I think, is one of the most horrific lies to students.
College enrollment typically increases during a recession; the other thing that increases during a recession is predatory recruiting by colleges. At the height of the 2008 recession is when you saw the ugliest predatory tactics by for-profit colleges, particularly pain-based recruiting. And they were upfront about the pain-based recruiting. During the 2009-2012 Senate investigation, we requested and received from for-profit colleges their training manuals for their recruiters — how to get students to enroll. And many of the colleges taught “pain-based recruiting,” which meant manipulate prospective students’ emotional pain to get them to enroll. This was considered the norm in the industry to the point that the designer of the pain funnel, a specific tactic to squeeze the pain, received an employee award from ITT Tech. Ugly recruiting was honored inside the for-profit industry during the last recession, and you can bet that it’s going to happen again.
For for-profit colleges, this recession is a gold mine. They can’t wait to lie, cheat, and steal and to get more money. They see lots of vulnerable Americans who are emotionally fragile, scared, and in financial hardship, and for them that is prey.
For years, Veterans Education Success has been advocating for the VA to crack down on colleges for violating a federal law barring deceptive practices when recruiting veterans. Finally, on March 9, the VA said it would halt new GI Bill enrollments at the University of Phoenix, Temple University, and three other schools because of evidence that the institutions misled prospective students. Why do you think it took the VA this long to act; what was different this time?
There’s no question that the support that Arnold Ventures has given us over the past five years has enabled us to mobilize a more robust voice, and, in recent years, we’ve been able to help VA understand the impact on veterans and taxpayers of the deceptive recruiting by colleges. But that wouldn’t have been possible without the expanded voice the foundation has enabled us to have.
We published a paper in the fall that documented that, despite enormous evidence, the VA had been ignoring the 1974 law that requires it to cut off the GI Bill to schools that use deceptive marketing and recruiting. We exposed that, and that got quite a lot of attention. In February of 2019, we organized a letter from 36 veterans and military organizations to VA expressing frustrations that VA was not enforcing this law. With Arnold Ventures’ help, we had been able to put increased public pressure on VA to enforce the law.
One big project you’ve taken on is studying Education Department and VA datasets to shed light on the successes and challenges of the GI Bill — including enrollment trends, student loan debt, and noncompletion rates for veterans. How can this research help improve education and employment for veterans?
This is a very large, government-wide data-sharing effort that will be out of the Census Bureau, in which federal government agencies will be sharing their data on student veterans and military students, and the Census Bureau will be able to match all the records. It will be the first time ever that Americans will know what the student veteran graduation rate is and what the outcomes of the GI Bill are. For example, what kinds of degrees are student veterans getting and what kind of graduation rates and economic successes are they having? We’ll be able to see from the data that certain pathways are clearly more successful than others.
Since November 2016, we’ve been gathering the government permissions to share their databases and slowly getting different government agencies on board with the idea that by sharing data, they can collectively answer important questions. One important question is who is skipping the GI Bill? Roughly half of the GI Bill goes unused, so who are the veterans who are skipping it? If they already have a college degree, no one’s going to worry, but what if they are the veterans many people are already worried about? What if they are rural, low-income, in dead-end jobs; what if they are the very people Congress was envisioning helping with the GI Bill? Nobody knows; we don’t know if that’s true or not. But once we have the answers about who is skipping the GI Bill, that can inform policy, so then the Department of Veterans Affairs can say, “Well, that data shows that some of our vulnerable populations need more help to use the GI Bill; there needs to be more direct education to them of the benefits.”
It’s also really helpful for the government agencies, because typically, government agencies are incredibly siloed in their data. For example, the Department of Veterans Affairs knows which colleges GI Bill students are attending, but VA doesn’t know if you are taking out loans; the Education Department knows if you’re taking out loans but doesn’t know which students are veterans. The Education Department also knows some of your outcomes, like, did you graduate? VA literally just tracks the money. VA knows that for student John Smith, they sent $40,000 to University of Maryland. That’s all they know. Did John graduate from University of Maryland? What kind of degree did John get? Did he take out loans? Did he then find a job? VA doesn’t know anything; they only know the dollars out the door. I think it’s been really exciting to see the agencies start to recognize that if they aren’t siloed about their data, they can answer more questions.
What is one service Veterans Education Success offers that most people aren’t aware of?
We do a lot of direct client services and a lot of direct legal services. We have basically a mini legal services clinic out of our operation. For example, this week, we were filing a legal document to the Department of Veterans Affairs; they had determined that a student who had used the GI Bill hadn’t served enough military time. But he had been assured that he had when he first applied, and this is now years later, so he’s already finished with school and the VA wants him to repay the tuition. All his military officers told him he had finished his time and he was short by, like, two days. So, this is one of those things where the VA said, “You’re short by two days; you owe us $100,000.” But he remembered the names of his military superiors, and we were able to reach them and get affidavits that they had checked his records and that he did have enough service. If there is an error in his use of the GI Bill, it was an administrative error by the military, and so we were able to file legal papers with VA this week on that case. We think it’s a really strong case, and we think VA will agree.
What is your favorite tech toy — for work or play — that you can’t live without?
These days it’s Zoom. Because of the coronavirus, we do all our meetings on Zoom. It’s good, because it’s been helpful to see people’s faces. To be honest, a lot of our staff meeting time has been on how people are doing psychologically and if they’re feeling stressed. We talk about ways to handle stress and that it’s normal to feel stressed; it’s a stressful time. And Zoom is really helpful in being able to see their faces and talk about how they’re feeling.