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Indiana Republicans want to give back GI Bill money to veterans at ITT Tech

By JAMES BRIGGS | The Indianapolis Star (Tribune News Service) | Published: September 14, 2016

An Indiana Republican wants to fast-track a solution to what he calls a "crisis" of veterans losing their education benefits to the collapse of ITT Technical Institute.

U.S. Rep. Luke Messer, of Shelbyville, on Tuesday filed a bill that would let veterans who were attending ITT recoup their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits and reapply them to future coursework. Messer hopes to attach his solution, titled the Protecting Our Veterans From School Closures Act, to a late-year fiscal bill.

"Our goal is to get something passed by year end," Messer said. "Obviously, this puts us on a very tight timeline. This is a crisis that has emerged in the last couple weeks."

Passing his proposal as a standalone bill likely would take until next year, Messer said. He called that unacceptable in the wake of ITT's closure, which wasted the military education benefits of thousands of veterans.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill gives veterans 36 months of college tuition, plus expenses, to attend the school of their choice.

Unlike the federal student loan program, though, it makes no accommodation for students who are enrolled in a school that goes out of business.

When Carmel-based ITT Educational Services Inc. announced Sept. 6 that it was closing all of its campuses, the company essentially stranded veterans who had attended classes there without completing their programs. Most colleges and universities don't accept ITT's transfer credits, leaving many veterans with two choices: Start a new program with a reduced pot of GI Bill money, or not return to school.

Messer's bill would allow veterans to restore their GI Bill money to attend a new school. Five other Indiana Republicans signed on as co-sponsors: Reps. Susan Brooks, Todd Young, Todd Rokita, Jackie Walorski and Larry Bucshon. Messer is seeking additional co-sponsors.

Indiana's congressional Democrats, Reps. Andre Carson, of Indianapolis, and Pete Visclosky, of Merrillville, could not be reached for comment.

Several advocacy groups have called for such a policy in recent months. But Washington, D.C.-based Student Veterans of America found little urgency among lawmakers before ITT collapsed under government sanctions.

ITT's closure represents what experts say is the largest loss of military education benefits ever caused by a defunct school. When Corinthian Colleges closed last year, only 450 veterans were attending at the time. There were 6,842 GI Bill recipients enrolled at ITT when it closed, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

"I would say something of (ITT's) scale is unprecedented," Derek Fronabarger, the policy director for Student Veterans of America, told IndyStar earlier this month.

Jim Brown, director of the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs, said such legislation is necessary. He lamented that ITT and even government agencies were "allowed to string our veterans along rather than informing them" about ITT's troubles in the months leading up to its closure.

Messer's bill would apply to veterans who were attending ITT when it closed, as well as aid veterans in the event of future school closings. Early analysis suggests it would cost $40 million to $50 million to restore GI Bill benefits to former ITT students, Messer said.

Aside from people who self-fund their education or take out private loans, veterans are the least protected students from failing schools. The U.S. Department of Education has said active ITT students likely will get their federal loans forgiven.

Even ITT graduates and dropouts can file claims to get their loans discharged, though acceptance is not guaranteed.

"We say of veterans who haven't completed a degree yet, they would get a second bite at the apple," Messer said.

(c) 2016 The Indianapolis Star. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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