Presidential order to protect vets from colleges' shady practices
By LEO SHANE III | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 26, 2012
WASHINGTON — Concerned about deceptive marketing practices that cheat veterans out of their GI Bill benefits, President Barack Obama on Friday signed an executive order aimed at marginalizing colleges with poor graduation rates and demanding better college comparison information for all student veterans.
According to senior administration officials, the order will limit college recruiters’ access to military bases, develop a complaint system to track violations by schools, force colleges to provide graduation rates and student debt information, and crack down on institutions using the term “GI Bill” in their veterans outreach efforts.
Obama signed the bill during a stop at Fort Stewart in Georgia, where he met with troops and their families during a private event.
“Every school and every business should be out there competing for your skills and your talent and your leadership, everything that you’ve shown in uniform,” Obama told the group on Friday. “But as some of your comrades have discovered, sometimes you’re dealing with folks who aren’t interested in helping you. They’re not interested in helping you find the best program. They are interested in getting the money.”
The measure mirrors a host of bills pending before Congress but bypasses the legislative process, which has been mired in partisan discord for months. Privately, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have backed many of the ideas but said passing any legislation dealing with the problem was unlikely before November.
But officials said that action was needed sooner, to address a growing list of complaints by student veterans regarding unfulfilled promises and unexpected debt from colleges. They cited anecdotes of college recruiters — particularly from for-profit schools — signing up brain-injured troops for classes, forcing unneeded student loans on veterans, and promising career opportunities through worthless degree programs.
On Friday, veterans groups praised the executive order as an opportunity to quickly address the needs of student veterans.
“This is a great step forward, and we’re happy to see the administration take action to help veterans,” said Ryan Gallucci, deputy legislative director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “We’ve long felt that student veterans need to have the tools to succeed when it comes to their education.”
Lobbyists from the for-profit industry panned it.
“APSCU is disappointed that in the midst of (discussions with lawmakers to deal with students’ problems), the president decided to bypass the Congress to address these issues with an executive order,” said Steve Gunderson, president of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities. “Career-oriented institutions proudly serve military and veteran populations, and work with congressional leaders in a bipartisan manner to address concerns about veteran education across all sectors of higher education.”
The executive order will end those practices by requiring the Defense Department to bar “bad actors” from military bases and from contacting troops. It would require the Department of Veterans Affairs to trademark the term “GI Bill,” and allow it to go after websites and advertising that confuse veterans by exploiting the phrase.
The Defense, Veterans Affairs and Education departments also will develop a centralized complaint system to track problems and receive new enforcement options to act on wronged veterans’ cases.
VA officials also will assemble a database of institutions’ tuition and fees, financial aid options, student loan debt estimates and graduation rates for college-bound veterans to browse before selecting a college. Administration officials said they could have parts of that database available this summer, before the fall semesters begin.
They also emphasized that the White House is not targeting for-profit schools with the new moves, but is concerned with questionable practices by many of those institutions.
The order does not deal with the amount of federal funding for-profits can accept, a proposal favored by a number of lawmakers to target those schools. White House officials said they were open to exploring that idea through legislation in the future, but did not back any specific legislation.
Officials said the new rules will apply not only to schools accepting GI Bill dollars, but also the military’s Tuition Assistance Program, the Military Spouse Career Advancement Account Program, and a host of other military-related education benefits.