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Veterans groups ask VA secretary to keep GI benefits out of the hands of predatory colleges

JOINT BASE MYER-HENDERSON HALL

By DANIELLE DOUGLAS-GABRIEL | The Washington Post | Published: February 20, 2019

More than two dozen advocacy groups are calling on Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie to intensify monitoring of college programs that enroll veterans after an audit found lax oversight could result in $2.3 billion in tuition benefits going to predatory schools during the next five years.

Education funding earned by men and women who serve in the U.S. military has become a stable source of revenue for many colleges. But advocates say that some schools — especially for-profit colleges — have failed to provide high-quality education and that the federal government has shirked its responsibility to act.

The aggressive recruiting practices of some for-profit colleges have been well-documented. A 2012 Senate investigation found evidence of schools deploying teams at veterans hospitals and wounded-warrior centers to enroll students. Some recruiters misled or lied to veterans in telling them that their military benefits cover the full cost of tuition.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has the authority to cut off GI Bill benefits to schools that use deceptive advertising. Those benefits provide veterans and their families with funding for college. But an audit released in December by the federal agency's inspector general found millions of dollars going to for-profit colleges that violated VA standards by making misleading claims about their accreditation status or student outcomes.

"The veterans we serve are understandably angry when they discover that the very consumer fraud they faced at a predatory school is one the VA knew about but approved for GI Bill benefits anyway," said Carrie Wofford, president of Veterans Education Success, an advocacy group that signed onto the letter sent to the VA secretary. "They're even angrier when they learn VA was obligated to cut off such schools under federal law, but did not."

In the letter sent Friday to Wilkie, the veterans groups requested a meeting with the secretary and the inspector general to discuss a path forward.

"VA appreciates the letter from our partner organizations and their willingness to work with us to find solutions that meet the needs of our veterans and the expectations of our nation," VA spokeswoman Ndidi Mojay said in an email. "VA is actively working to implement the recommendations from the Inspector General report."

The audit by the inspector general documents a breakdown in the review, approval and monitoring of college programs that receive GI Bill funds. The Veterans Benefits Administration, a VA division, is supposed to work with state approving agencies to supervise colleges. The state entities are responsible for granting schools access to veterans education benefits. But federal and state agencies have taken a hands-off approach — to the detriment of students — according to the audit.

Auditors project that about 11,200 students using GI Bill benefits will enroll in programs that violate VA standards, costing the federal agency about $585 million in improper payments a year. The lion's share of that money will go to for-profit colleges. If nothing is done, the inspector general estimates those figures could reach 17,000 students and $2.3 billion in five years.

"Our goal is to provide veterans with the benefits they have earned in a manner that honors their service. This means allowing veterans to choose an approved institution that meets their requirements," Mojay said. "At the same time, we must also ensure we are strong fiscal stewards of the money entrusted to us."

She said VA will continue to work with state agencies and veterans groups to "find the right balance" in giving students choices and ensuring they can maximize their benefits.

Wofford, of the advocacy group, said the veterans organizations share the concerns outlined by the inspector general "and believe the VA secretary can solve this problem if he meets with us and puts his leadership on the problem."

Advocacy groups say for-profit colleges have a long history of targeting returning service members. Yet calls for VA to intervene have gone unanswered.

Veterans lodged complaints against Career Education, a for-profit college operator that ran Le Cordon Bleu and Sanford-Brown, and a whistleblower met with VA staff members in June 2018 to no avail, according to the letter.

State attorneys general found evidence that the chain deceived prospective students about the total cost of enrollment, the ability to transfer credits and the jobs graduates got after graduating. To resolve those allegations, Career Education agreed to halt efforts to collect $556 million owed by former students.

Career Education has denied wrongdoing.

The company "has the third highest number of veteran complaints brought to the VA," the letter said. "This is just one example of ineligible colleges receiving improper GI Bill payments that could be avoided with proper VA oversight."

Veterans are attractive to for-profit colleges because money from GI Bill benefits is exempt from the 90/10 rule, which prohibits such schools from getting more than 90 percent of their operating revenue from federal student aid funding. Despite the attention the issue has received, bills in Congress to close that funding loophole since 2012 have failed to gain enough support to pass.

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