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Scrutiny of Colleges That Get Billions in GI Bill Money Remains Mired in Bureaucracy

As veterans try to get higher educations, many complain that no one is looking out for them.

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One of the reasons Richard Baca joined the New Mexico National Guard was for the education benefits promised to him through the GI Bill.

After twice being deployed to Iraq as a combat medic, Baca was set on becoming a physician assistant. He found a website listing Ashford University as friendly to service members and veterans. He said the online for-profit university promised him a comprehensive slate of classes and flexibility in scheduling them, so he signed up.

Baca’s relationship with Ashford quickly became strained. Though he thought his GI Bill benefits would pay for his schooling, he said, Ashford disputed his eligibility and wouldn’t accept them. He eventually gave up and took out $10,000 in student loans.

Disappointed with his education, he quit but said the school billed him for classes he never took and wouldn’t release his transcript until he paid for them.

“I would still like to go back to school, but Ashford has curtailed those efforts,” Baca said.

Zovio, Ashford’s parent company, declined to discuss Baca’s case unless he signed a waiver, but generally denied assertions that it improperly told veterans they were not eligible for GI Bill benefits.

Richard Baca joined the New Mexico National Guard for the education benefits promised to him through the GI Bill, but after returning from two deployments to Iraq he became mired in difficulties with a for-profit university and has at least temporarily given up on getting a degree. (Photo provided by Richard Baca)

Baca is not the only person to complain about Ashford; so have other service members and veterans, investigators and members of Congress. But the Department of Veterans Affairs has done little to counsel veterans seeking an education or restrict them from enrolling at it or other for-profit colleges and universities.

That has begun to result in angry members of Congress from both parties proposing more protections for veterans seeking further education.

VA officials say their chief role in the GI Bill program is, and always has been, administering payments. Unlike the Department of Education or the Department of Defense, the VA has few tools to investigate the educational institutions into which it last year pumped $11 billion of taxpayer money. This limited oversight authority previously resulted in the now-defunct for-profit Argosy University being allowed to take GI Bill benefits even after the Department of Education made it ineligible for any other kind of federal student aid.

Related: At some colleges that recruit veterans and their GI Bill money, none graduate

The VA’s Office of Inspector General has estimated that, if oversight is not ramped up significantly, $2.3 billion in GI Bill funds could be funneled over the next five years to potentially ineligible academic programs. It said this could put at risk the educational outcomes of more than 17,000 student veterans.

Internal government documents, watchdog reports and interviews with veterans’ policy advocates, government staffers and other officials suggest that little has been done to crack down on colleges accused of predatory behavior. Veterans’ educational counseling is virtually nonexistent, and oversight efforts are largely left to state agencies that are underfunded and overly reliant on self-reporting by the institutions themselves.

One former VA official, Rosye Cloud, said veterans’ education issues have long been neglected by agency leaders. As an example, she pointed to the Accelerated Learning Program, or ALP, which she spearheaded in her role as a senior VA advisor under the Obama administration.

The ALP was meant to provide training for veterans in sought-after areas such as coding and cybersecurity. Yet as it was ramped up, Cloud said, millions of dollars dedicated to the program were instead used by senior VA leaders to pay for unrelated claims processing.

“There is a long history of underinvesting in education — and economic opportunity operations as a whole — within the department,” Cloud said.

Curt Coy, who was the VA’s deputy under secretary for economic opportunity from 2011 until his retirement in late 2017, said it was hard to find resources for veterans’ educational issues.

“The GI Bill, despite being one of the most important and life-changing benefits for veterans, often took a back seat to other programs,” Coy said.

A chorus of lawmakers is now advocating for reforms, including the creation of a new veterans’ administration focused almost exclusively on education issues.

“The big discussion going on now is to push VA to recognize that the GI Bill is not another disability or pension program,” said John Kamin, the American Legion’s assistant director of veterans employment and education. “It is a capital investment in our veterans’ future that requires sound oversight.”

VA spokeswoman Susan Carter said in a statement that the department had expanded its GI Bill compliance strategies to crack down on bad actors and increase awareness about allegedly predatory schools.

At this point, schools are often still able to operate with impunity, and veterans are being scammed.
Robert Muth managing attorney, University of San Diego Veterans Legal Clinic

The most trumpeted new approach focuses around a complaint system and a separate GI Bill comparison tool that flags schools the department determines are in trouble. Carter said complaints have led to federal reviews of 166 colleges and universities, of which 21 lost their eligibility to take veterans using GI Bill money.

Yet Carter would not provide the names of those institutions whose approval for GI Bill money was withdrawn because of consumer complaints, and the agency has not responded to a Freedom of Information Act request for them.

Obtained from congressional sources by The Hechinger Report, the list includes small barber, cosmetology and trucking schools, the Computer Training Institute of Chicago, United Medical and Business Institute, Career Point College and others. One, Medical Careers Institute of ECPI University in Virginia Beach, Virginia, has since been reinstated.

The VA’s recently expanded compliance strategies fall short of what some advocates want.

Robert Muth, managing attorney at the University of San Diego Veterans Legal Clinic, said he has pushed the VA to collect and make public veterans’ complains about schools. Cloud and Coy said they also encouraged this, along with the creation of other ways for student veterans to provide feedback about their experiences. So far, none of these things has happened.

“The problem is that veterans now only have blunt tools,” Muth said. “They can see which schools have elicited complaints, but don’t necessarily understand the true nature of these complaints. At this point, schools are often still able to operate with impunity, and veterans are being scammed.”

The VA has received at least 37 complaints about Ashford from GI Bill beneficiaries. An advocacy group called Veterans Education Success (VES) has collected 113 more from veterans and service members, many of which echo Baca’s criticisms about quality and cost.

“I have paid out of pocket for a lot of my degree because [Ashford] cannot seem to work with our benefits like they said they could,” one veteran said. “The school continuously maxed me out on student loans every semester even though I got [the] GI Bill,” a disabled veteran wrote. “Now not only do I have two degrees that are almost practically useless, but I am over $70,000 in debt.”

Ashford is still eligible for GI Bill dollars, however, and, according to the latest VA data, enrolled nearly 7,000 student veterans during the last academic year.

GI Bill complaints against the school come from a tiny percentage of all students, said Nolan Sundrud, spokesman for Ashford’s parent company, Zovio, who said 95 percent of military-affiliated students in a survey said they would recommend Ashford to others seeking a degree.

“We are very proud of the fact that many of our military and veteran students come to us through word of mouth,” Sundrud said.

Formerly Bridgepoint Education, the company now called Zovio has raised eyebrows for years. In a 2011 congressional hearing, then-Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, called Bridgepoint “an absolute scam.” The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found in 2016 that the company was “deceiving students into taking out private student loans that cost more than advertised,” and ordered that those students be refunded their money.

The California attorney general sued Ashford and Bridgepoint in 2017, alleging that the school had made misrepresentations and false promises to hopeful students.

Sundrud denied the allegations in the California case, which is in the discovery process. He said it “focused on a few very isolated and outdated allegations.”

Carter, the VA spokeswoman, said the department was not aware of any impending actions regarding Ashford’s eligibility to accept GI Bill dollars.

The closing of for-profit colleges such as ITT Technical Institute has taken a toll on veteran recipients of GI Bill benefits, many of whom VA officials say appear to have abandoned their pursuit of higher education entirely. (Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press)

In the past, the shuttering of questionable schools has often had its own negative effects on GI Bill recipients. As Argosy and other for-profits like Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute have closed, many student veterans appear to have abandoned their pursuit of higher education entirely, according to VA officials, even when offered a restoration of their benefits.

“Billions of taxpayer dollars are paid every year via the GI Bill, yet little effort is made to ensure college and career guidance is provided prior to critical decision points,” said Cloud, who, in addition to her job at the VA, worked on economic issues in the Obama White House.

The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, now known simply as the GI Bill, was signed just over 75 years ago, on June 22, 1944, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Even in its original form, the GI Bill was plagued by fraud, predatory recruitment practices and, for thousands of veterans, useless educations. H.V. Stirling, who was administering the GI Bill in 1949, said “taxpayers are to be bled white” if there were not reforms to protect student veterans from fly-by-night proprietary schools.

GI Bill oversight and accreditation have long been split between the VA and what are called state approving agencies. These are funded by the VA and subject to federal scrutiny themselves but take on the lion’s share of the oversight work. Yet they mostly rely on self-reporting by universities and colleges rather than independent investigation.

The lines between the VA and its state counterparts have long been ambiguous and even contradictory.

“When Congress first passed the GI Bill, they didn’t think about accountability, about measuring outcomes or returns on investment,” said Walter Ochinko, research director at VES, which recently released a report on the confusing oversight statutes. “As a result, there are now gaping holes in the GI Bill.”

A series of changes in 2011 and 2016 meant to clarify oversight roles has only muddled things, according to the VES report. During recent congressional testimony, Charmain Bogue, executive director of education service at the VA, lay oversight squarely on states before saying that she wished the VA could take bold action instead of waiting for “a school to slowly die out.”

If oversight is not ramped up, $2.3 billion in GI Bill dollars could be funneled to academic programs that are potentially ineligible to receive student veterans, the VA’s Office of Inspector General says.

In response, Joseph Westcott, the national legislative liaison for the National Association of State Approving Agencies, noted that “VA does have the authority to suspend enrollment if they can find grounds for doing that, and that would be an effective tool to move against institutions.”

Not since the World War II generation have so many people used the GI Bill. Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the number of veterans using the benefit has doubled, to nearly 900,000 last year. Yet the amount budgeted for oversight of the nearly 15,000 institutions these students attend has increased only slightly, from $19 million a year between 2006 and 2017 to $23 million this year.

The Government Accountability Office has found that this limited funding restricts key oversight work, including site visits to colleges. Financial challenges have also curtailed training in such areas as how to authorize and track the flow of GI Bill dollars. The VA’s Office of Inspector General calculated in 2016 that in the 2013-14 academic year, the VA overpaid schools $247.6 million.

When the inspector general audited a statistical sample of 175 approved academic programs, it found that SAA officials made oversight errors in 20 percent of these programs, including by granting “unsupported or improper” approvals.

“To gain the ground we lost over the last decade and accomplish more rigorous oversight we need more money — I’d say around $30 million a year,” Westcott said. “I don’t think that’s a big ask when you look at the huge needs across the nation.”

One of the state agencies reviewed by the inspector general was the California State Approving Agency for Veterans Education, which has been locked in a tense back-and-forth with the VA over issues including Ashford’s eligibility to continue to receive GI Bill money. In September, the VA took the extraordinary step of declining to extend its cooperative agreement with California.

California’s state approving agency is generally considered one of the more aggressive, but last year’s OIG report found that it did not properly assess DeVry University’s advertising materials, which the inspector general said falsely claimed that 90 percent of graduates found jobs within six months of graduation.

Some lawmakers and veterans’ advocates have suggested that the VA’s steps against the California agency demonstrated that the Trump administration is captive to for-profit colleges. They also questioned who else would conduct the necessary oversight for California, which has 1,200 universities and colleges and among the highest veteran populations in the country.

The VA has also severed ties with two much smaller states, Vermont and Hawaii. Other states, including New Mexico and Alaska, have voluntarily backed out of VA contracts due to the scant funding they received for such demanding work. This has resulted in bizarre workarounds by the VA, including five years in which Alaska’s GI Bill oversight work was being conducted remotely from Oklahoma.

Former Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, in a file photo. Harkin called one for-profit education company that enrolled nearly 7,000 veterans last year “an absolute scam.” (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The VA inspector general warned that the agency may soon see other states withdraw in frustration, which could bring G.I. Bill oversight work to a halt.

Lawmakers have drafted a series of bills that, among other things, would strengthen state oversight authority and raise the bar for schools seeking student veterans. One would require comprehensive audits for schools that take GI Bill dollars but have failed to meet financial responsibility standards set by the Department of Education.

They have also floated measures aimed at improving educational guidance for veterans preparing to use their benefits. Today, there’s a $6 million annual spending cap for this type of work, and it’s directed exclusively toward veterans with disabilities.

Even that money isn’t being used the way it’s supposed to be; only 7 percent of the available funds went to provide this type of counseling last year, according to an internal VA spreadsheet obtained by The Hechinger Report.

Other work to improve outcomes for student veterans has stalled. Collaboration that was mandated between the Departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs and Education in 2012 through an Obama-era executive order to measure student veterans’ success rates still hasn’t been fully implemented, and a related interagency working group now rarely meets.

There’s significant work that the VA could take on without congressional authorization but hasn’t. According to Muth, this includes ordering schools that take GI Bill money not to saddle students with dense contracts that waive their rights to legal action. Another needed change, according to policy advocates, is redirecting state approving agencies’ efforts away from reviewing schools’ basic financial data and toward meatier oversight that involves evaluating educational outcomes.

Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., proposes to fix some of these and other problems in a bill called the PRO-Students Act that would close the loophole in what is known as the 90/10 Rule. The rule requires that for-profit colleges get no more than 90 percent of their revenues from federal student aid, but G.I. bill payments do not count as such aid, which incentivizes those schools to aggressively secure them.

That idea got new momentum when Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate committee that oversees education, threw his support behind it. One of Takano’s House colleagues, Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., however, has sponsored the Prosper Act, which, among other things, would eliminate the 90/10 Rule altogether, allowing for-profits to be funded entirely by taxpayer dollars.

When the PRO-Students Act was introduced last year, it had just two co-sponsors in the House. Foxx’s bill, on the other hand, racked up 21.

This story about GI Bill benefits was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.