Ever since the federal government began investing in college access, through the GI Bill and then the Higher Education Act, policymakers have struggled to answer questions about what Americans should collectively expect from the system in return for those dollars.
Too often, questions of accountability have been caught up in partisan politics. But some hopeful signs of change are emerging.
Toward the end of 2019, four Senators introduced the first bipartisan bill to rein in some of the worst abuses by predatory institutions against veterans.
Called the Protect VETS Act, the bill seeks to change what’s known as the 90-10 rule, which limits how much of a for-profit school’s revenue can be from federal sources. Right now, GI Bill dollars do not count as a “federal source,” making veterans a particularly attractive target for schools. Unfortunately, these are the same schools that have been shown to leave people in debt and without a degree.
If there is one thing divided parties can usually agree on, it’s legislation that protects veterans.
So will we see progress on this bill in 2020?
One potential obstacle is that policymakers want to pass a comprehensive bill rather than smaller pieces of legislation, said Kelly McManus, Arnold Ventures’ Director of Higher Education.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) have spent the past year negotiating a large package of reforms that would update the Higher Education Act. They did not come to an agreement on terms last year, but they are still plugging away.
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The GI Bill has been in place for 75 years, and while it has helped countless veterans buy a home or start a business, its track record in higher education has come under scrutiny. In the latest episode of “Deep Dive with Laura Arnold,” Laura Arnold talks to Carrie Wofford, Founder and President of Veterans Education Success, about how for-profit education targets veterans' GI Bill money.Listen Now
The House passed its own comprehensive package called the College Accountability Act, which included changes to the 90-10 rule. It represents the high-water mark for accountability policy, but there’s little chance the Republican-controlled upper chamber will move it forward.
Another obstacle is that if Republicans support greater accountability, they will be breaking ranks with the current administration if they clamp down on the for-profit college industry. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has consistently rolled back consumer protections and quality assurance policies — a stance student advocates are now challenging in the courts.
The bipartisan bill and the court cases are an indication that things are coming to a head. The push for accountability in higher education is not going away. “Whether you come at this from a good government perspective or a social justice perspective, there is a growing recognition that we need to do something,” McManus said.
And that gives reason for hope.
The Protect VETS Act continues to add co-sponsors in both parties, and Sen. Alexander has expressed his support. Will that be enough momentum for the bill to move forward independently if a comprehensive bill isn’t possible? Potentially. If it is, this will be the first significant legislative movement toward greater accountability, and it is one that makes sense: If Congress can agree to protect anyone, it should be veterans.