The nation’s largest student veteran organization is fighting a federal proposal to make it easier for Department of Veterans Affairs employees to work for, financially benefit from, or enroll as students in for-profit colleges.
Student Veterans of America, a nonprofit with about 600,000 members, submitted a letter to the VA Tuesday, asking that the department reconsider plans to issue automatic waivers allowing VA employees to “receive any wages, salary, dividends, profits, gratuities, or services from, or own any interest in” for-profit institutions that educate students using GI Bill benefits.
In a notice of intent published in the Federal Register last month, the department said employees would still have to abide by conflict of interest laws, but that current regulations, which VA is now trying to roll back, have “illogical and unintended consequences.” Interpreted literally, the rules could lead to the firing of a VA lab technician who takes a class at a for-profit institution, according to VA.
But the VA already has a waiver system in place that would protect from these types of consequences, writes Will Hubbard, SVA vice president of government affairs.
“The language clearly indicates the waivers are to be made on an individual basis. In light of a waiver provision already existing, waiving the application of this statute to more than 330,000 VA employees would result in serious harm to our veterans,” the letter states.
The impetus for the VA’s notice was a recent report from the VA Inspector General, which found two employees had “engaged in conflicting interests” when they taught classes at for-profit schools. The report recommended that VA enforce the law as written and that employees involved in for-profits be terminated, or institute a waiver.
If VA enforced the statute as written, “the department could lose thousands of employees and our ability to serve veterans would be seriously impeded,” VA spokesman Curt Cashour said in an email. “To require individual waivers would be a tremendous waste of government resources, when we know that the duties of the vast majority of VA employees have no impact on for-profit educational institutions.”
According to a Military Times analysis of federal data, half of the top 10 schools educating GI Bill users in fiscal 2016 were for-profits, including the No. 1 most common veteran destination, University of Phoenix.
The VA was unable to provide the number of employee waivers the department has issued in the last year — or to which institutions they have applied — by press time.
SVA’s statement follows a letter to the VA from Senate Health, Education Labor & Pensions Committee Ranking Member Patty Murray, D-Wash., and other leading Democratic Senators last week. It stated: “Weakening conflict of interest regulations related to for-profit institutions is not only inadvisable, but will put our men and women in uniform and those who have served our country at further risk of predatory and abusive business practices.”
Committee Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., could not be reached for comment Monday regarding his opinion of the VA’s notice and whether Republican members of the committee plan to submit their own letter to the VA.
Public comment on the proposed policy is open until Oct. 16.