Webb: Limit GI Bill at for-profit schools

 

By Rick Maze – Staff writer
Posted : Friday Mar 9, 2012 11:20:35 EST
The father of the Post-9/11 GI Bill has launched a battle to preserve the benefit by proposing new restrictions on tuition payments to for-profit schools.

The modern-day GI Bill has cost more than $17.2 billion in an era of belt-tightening, and about 37 percent of the money has gone to for-profit institutions. Some of these schools have been under fire because of a series of investigations that revealed high-pressure and deceptive recruiting practices, and questions about the value of the courses they teach.

Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., the lawmaker behind the landmark veterans’ benefit, worries that the GI Bill could be ruined by some schools that use questionable recruiting practices and offer a lower-quality education.

More on the GI Bill

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In a move he says could save the 3-year-old program, Webb introduced a bill Thursday that would set strict, specific standards for schools to receive both the Post-9/11 GI Bill and military tuition assistance.

Service members deserve to know their GI Bill benefits “will not be lost or squandered on an education that fails to equip them with the skills and knowledge they need to be successful,” Webb said as he introduced the bill.

The Military and Veterans Educational Reform Act of 2012, S 2179, would impose new requirements on schools. Among other things, schools seeking to receive GI Bill or tuition assistance money would have to:

• Meet the same federal requirements that apply to receiving Pell Grants and other federal aid. These standards include having an undergraduate dropout rate of no more than 33 percent.

• Disclose graduation rates and default rates on loans.

• Provide support services to students using GI Bill or tuition assistance funds, and one-on-one counseling before enrolling to plan a course of education, if the school has more than 20 such students.

In addition, state agencies responsible for screening schools would have to conduct audits, and the Veterans Affairs and Defense departments would have to develop a centralized complaint process to report fraud or misrepresentation.

These requirements are similar to regulations proposed by the Defense Department for schools receiving tuition assistance.

Webb is a Naval Academy graduate, former Marine Corps officer, decorated Vietnam War combat veteran and former Navy secretary who made passage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill his top priority when he became a senator in 2007. He modeled the benefit after the World War II GI Bill of Rights, with veterans eligible for full tuition, a monthly living stipend, a book allowance and money for tutors and tests.

About 700,000 people have used the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Webb is proud, calling it “the greatest GI Bill our veterans and military members have ever seen.”

Webb is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s personnel panel and a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, positions that give him an inside position to push the restrictions. But his power could be waning because he is not running for a second term. By November, he will be a so-called “lame duck” member of Congress with limited powers beyond his personal persuasiveness.

His cosponsors are Democratic Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee; Tom Carper of Delaware; and Claire McCaskill of Missouri; and Republican Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, an Army National Guard officer who serves with Webb on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

Harkin and Carper have been involved in a prolonged attack on for-profit schools over deceptive sales tactics and enrollment practices that in many cases have targeted service members and veterans. A Feb. 23 report prepared by Harkin’s staff found almost 50 percent of the $563 million spent last year by the Defense Department on tuition assistance for active-duty troops went to for-profit schools.

The for-profit school industry had no immediate comment on the bill. But the president of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, who testified before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee the same day Webb introduced the bill, has defended the industry.

“Every sector of higher education has dealt with individual episodes of abuse or misbehavior,” said Steve Gunderson, as he testified about pending veterans’ education and employment legislation. “It is incumbent upon Congress to ensure that the actions of the few are not held against the many.”

Veterans attend for-profit schools “because we have consistently offered flexible administrative and academic policies, career-focused curricula, credit for past training and experience, and support services that strive to meet their unique academic and personal needs,” Gunderson said.

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