Online complaints system will police colleges over GI Bill benefits

By LEO SHANE III | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 30, 2014

WASHINGTON — Federal officials on Thursday launched an online complaints system designed to root out colleges taking advantage of student veterans and their military education benefits.

Complaints will be reviewed by the departments of Veterans Affairs, Defense, Education and Justice, along with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Federal Trade Commission.

The massive interagency effort will allow federal officials to use their findings to pressure schools into changing, or go after harsher punishment if warranted.

Veterans groups hailed the move as a game-changer.

“This is going to give us the ability to identify problems and trends veterans are having, and name names,” said Ryan Gallucci, deputy legislative director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Lawmakers in recent years have expressed concerns about veterans wasting GI Bill benefits at schools that provide shaky degree programs and few job prospects. The VA has distributed more than $34 billion in post-9/11 GI Bill funds since that benefit began in fall 2009, making it attractive to unscrupulous schools.

Democrats on the Senate education committees have focused on for-profit schools, blasting them as targeting military and veteran students while providing poor post-graduation prospects.

“Prior to today, veterans and servicemembers had nowhere to go when they were subjected to aggressive and deceptive recruiting by predatory for-profit colleges, including being lied to about a school’s accreditation, true tuition and fees,” said Carrie Wofford, president of Veterans Education Success.

But veterans groups such as the VFW and Student Veterans of America in recent months have declined to attack the for-profit higher education industry, saying that anecdotes of student problems aren’t limited to any one set of schools.

Outside groups, including the American Legion, have already launched their own complaints centers and assistance hot lines to better track some of those problems. But advocates are optimistic the new federal system will not only help better identify bad actors but also force changes in their practices.

The move comes some 18 months after President Barack Obama signed an executive order designed to promote “principles of excellence” for higher education institutions receiving federal funds. VA officials said Thursday that collecting and investigating student complaints in part of a range of tools designed to make sure GI Bill funds are being spent wisely.

“The online complaint system empowers veterans and their dependents and provides them a direct line to VA and our partner agencies,” VA Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey said in a statement, “The feedback we receive from veterans, servicemembers and their families will help us strengthen enforcement … to ensure students are receiving the education benefits they have earned and deserve.”

Complaints are expected to range from student life problems — like course offerings and counseling availability — to possible criminal actions, including predatory loan programs and academic credentialing fraud.

The complaints system also covers problems with active-duty students using Defense Department tuition assistance programs. In a statement, Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Jessica Wright said the program “will ensure we have the right information to identify and address any negative practices.”

The complaints system is available online through the VA web site.

Twitter: @LeoShane