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Vague education order may not help troops

May. 24, 2012 - 11:31AM   |   Last Updated: May. 24, 2012 - 11:31AM  |  
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President Obama's executive order on veterans education is drawing broad support from both for-profit colleges and veteran groups. But questions remain about how it will be enforced and whether its provisions for more oversight and transparency really will deter dishonest schools from defrauding or exploiting veterans.

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President Obama's executive order on veterans education is drawing broad support from both for-profit colleges and veteran groups. But questions remain about how it will be enforced and whether its provisions for more oversight and transparency really will deter dishonest schools from defrauding or exploiting veterans.

The executive order, which Obama signed April 27, sets out "principles of excellence" that schools must meet to receive military and veterans education funding. They include ending "unduly aggressive" recruiting techniques, giving prospective students information on federal financial aid options and expected tuition costs, and receiving accreditation for programs before opening them for enrollment.

But the order provides only vague guidance on how those principles will be enforced, particularly when it comes to GI Bill benefits.

"The Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs shall reflect the Principles ... in new agreements with educational institutions, to the extent practicable and permitted by law, concerning participation in the Yellow Ribbon Program for veterans under the Post-9/11 GI Bill or the Tuition Assistance Program for active duty service members," the order states.

VA "shall also notify all institutions participating in the Post-9/11 GI Bill program that they are strongly encouraged to comply with the Principles and shall post on the Department's website those that do."

School officials have speculated that DoD could incorporate the principles in a new memorandum of understanding that was drafted last year and is being revised. Pentagon officials could not say by Thursday whether the MOU will be affected.

How VA will enforce the principles is even murkier.

Although the executive order mentions the Yellow Ribbon Program a scholarship where VA and schools provide matching funds to make up the difference between Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, capped at $17,500 per year, and a school's price tag the VA's top education benefits official said schools will not be bumped from the program if they fail to comply with the principles.

"Yellow Ribbon agreements were mentioned, but the order directs that the principles of excellence be included in all future agreements of any kind," Robert Worley, director of VA's education service, told Military Times on May 16. "We will strongly encourage institutions to comply, but compliance ... is not a condition for approval as a GI Bill school."

What the states regulate

The executive order does not threaten to withdraw GI Bill funding from schools that fail to live up to the principles. That authority has historically fallen to state approving agencies regulatory bodies governed by the states but funded through contracts with VA.

State approving agencies have been responsible for signing off on eligibility for new schools since the post-World War II GI Bill was enacted decades ago.

John Hose, assistant director of Missouri's state approving agency, said many of the problems uncovered at some for-profit schools by recent media and Government Accountability Office investigations including misleading advertising and the dissemination of financial aid misinformation already are subject to quality control by state approving agencies. The executive order could expand their oversight responsibilities for other issues, such as financial counseling for GI Bill users.

However, Hose said, the amount of money set aside to fund the state agencies has remained flat over the past five to six years, even as the number of students using GI Bill benefits has exploded. At the same time, VA has increasingly relied on the state agencies to conduct "compliance surveys" ensuring schools properly record payments, even while the agencies continue to hold the front line on academic quality control.

"The problem becomes one of timing, because the compliance visit is very time-consuming, and then we also have the approval regulations," Hose said. "There are only so many hours in a day."

The executive order also requires VA to collect data from each school on veterans' academic success and graduation rates, which will then be posted on the Education Department's">College Navigator website.

But at a May 16 hearing of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee's economic opportunity panel, veteran advocate groups, including Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and Veterans of Foreign Wars, argued that College Navigator is too complex for most consumers to use, and there is no vetting process for the data reported by schools.

Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, argued at the hearing that transparency will never be enough.

"Disclosures are not a substitute for engagement," Nassirian said. "When I go to the supermarket, I don't want to have toxic food on the shelf with a Ph.D. dissertation handing out information as to whether it's going to kill me. We should take toxic programs off the table so that vets and service members don't have to pay the price."

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