As Denis McDonough prepares to take the helm as the new secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, he must address many difficult challenges. But there’s one issue that’s easy — stopping the fleecing of America’s veterans by predatory for-profit colleges. It’s not just a policy issue; it’s a Biden family issue.
President Joe Biden’s late son, Beau, was a national leader in standing up for veterans who were scammed by for-profit colleges targeting the GI Bill. As Delaware attorney general, he led a successful, multistate action in 2012 to give VA control over a for-profit college website, GIBill.com, that had tricked tens of thousands of veterans out of their GI Bill benefits. A year later, Biden partnered with Vice President Kamala Harris (then California attorney general) to successfully sue Corinthian, a for-profit college chain that bamboozled tens of thousands of veterans and servicemembers, even posing their salesmen as “Pentagon advisers.”
Flash forward to 2020: The Trump administration decimated much of the progress Biden and Harris started. Recently the GIBill.com domain went back to private ownership after VA failed to renew it, undoing Biden’s hard work. And last summer, the Trump administration overruled VA career civil servants who tried to follow the law and stop the flow of GI Bill funds to deceptive colleges.
Predatory colleges soak up a highly disproportionate share of the GI Bill and military tuition assistance, and are responsible for a huge portion of America’s student loan default problem, leaving students jobless or with subpar earnings. They single out veterans and servicemembers for aggressive and deceptive recruiting in order to gain access to the “military gravy train,” as one for-profit college whistleblower testified before Congress. Much of this is incentivized by a loophole in the Higher Education Act (the “90/10 loophole”) that allows for-profit colleges to use GI Bill funds to skirt the cap on federal funds the schools otherwise face, leading some for-profit schools to view veterans as “nothing more than dollar signs in uniform.”
McDonough can start by kicking deceptive colleges out of the GI Bill, as required by law (recently strengthened by a unanimous Congress). This is something the nation’s leading veterans and military service organizations called for in 2019 and 2016, as did VA’s Inspector General.
Countering deceptive marketing by predatory colleges will require McDonough to help veterans recognize and avoid fraud, including by improving VA’s college search tool with a “risk-index,” caution flags, consumer protection warnings, student outcome metrics and complaints, and by making the tool actually searchable. McDonough also needs to educate veterans about what a “Master Promissory Note” is, because too many veterans wind up with student loans they didn’t understand. He should also make it easier for student veterans to file complaints and should take those complaints seriously.
McDonough can work with his counterpart, education secretary nominee Miguel Carbona, to reinstate loan forgiveness for defrauded students (many of whom are veterans) and to release the data on schools that are skirting the 90/10 rule, something that hasn’t been reported since 2016.
Perhaps most important, McDonough should finish the work Beau Biden started by shutting down abusive websites and holding schools accountable for deceptive practices by the websites they hide behind. He must immediately reclaim the GIBill.Com domain to honor Biden’s legacy and should trademark terms that are ripe for abuse, like “Yellow Ribbon” (and help the Defense Department trademark “Army” and “Navy”) especially in light of the pernicious websites Army.com and NavyEnlist.com – for-profit college fronts – that the Federal Trade Commission recently shut down for tricking patriotic Americans. Those websites are just the tip of the iceberg.
In light of the many complicated issues facing McDonough at VA, one of his easiest decisions should be to stop the fleecing of America’s military heroes.
Carrie Wofford is president of Veterans Education Success and former senior counsel for the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.