New bipartisan legislation will create a rule against paying bonuses to college recruiters who reel in the most prospective students, including much-sought-after military veterans with GI Bill educational benefits.
The law, passed in September by the U.S. House of Representatives, cracks down on colleges—specifically private for-profit schools that use public funds to finance educational institutions—rewarding recruiters for signing up students with ample GI Bill benefits, a controversial practice that has come under criticism from veterans advocacy groups.
Military service members and veterans have too often been recruited into educational programs that don’t suit their needs, according to Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a 200,000-member group that has pushed lawmakers for more transparency in higher education, as well as statements from other veterans groups. Stripping the recruitment bonuses would be an effective way to stop incentivizing the practice.
Efforts to safeguard GI Bill benefits from being identified as wasteful government spending would be a critical step in ensuring military educational dollars stay intact during the country’s economic swoon, said Tarantino.
“If we’re not proactive on the issue of protecting GI benefits, there are going to be real problems going forward,” said Tarantino. “If we continue to pump billions into an industry, I think it should work effectively for its customers, the students.”
Tarantino said bipartisan agreement emerged on the issue of protecting GI Bill benefits after policy makers realized “how incredibly profitable it is to target military service members.”
A companion bill must be passed in the Senate before the law takes effect. But, in an election year, that is unlikely, according to Tarantino and Russell Kitchner. Tarantino said he hopes the Senate’s version of the bill will more forcefully require colleges to follow the rules spelled out in the House version.
Kitchner, vice president for regulatory and government relations for the American Public University System,
a for-profit institution headquartered in West Virginia, said the bill, known as H.R. 4057, unfairly targets for-profit colleges that have served veterans for decades.
“This legislation did not warrant our support, but many of its provisions are worthy of adoption by all of higher education,” he said. “What relevance is the requirement that institutions have to inform prospective students of their corporate status? Does Congress implicitly intend to promote a hierarchy of institutional value or quality or integrity?”
Kitchner said congressional involvement wasn’t necessary. If a college is expensive and does not deliver quality courses to military veterans and other students, that campus will face the financial consequences, he said.
“If they are overpriced or otherwise deemed to represent a poor value proposition, the market will respond accordingly,” Kitchner said.
The for-profit college industry took in $32 billion in taxpayer money last year, according to a July report, “For Profit Higher Education: The Failure to Safeguard the Federal Investment and Ensure Student Success,” released by Sen. Tom Harkin. For-profit college students spend an average of $34,988 on an associate degree, about four times the amount spent at a public college, according to the report.
Not every major for-profit college opposed the House legislation. In a letter sent to House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, the University of Phoenix said it would support efforts to better protect soldiers’ government benefits that have proven effective recruiting draws for the military.
“We recognized … that more needed to be done to enhance and protect the Post-9-11 GI Bill and other vital benefits for those who have sacrificed for our country,” the university said in a prepared statement. “That’s why we joined with various Veterans Service Organizations to outline specific reforms designed to support and protect military students.”
The legislative push to protect GI Bill benefits began in the spring, when President Barack Obama issued an executive order aimed at providing more transparency for veterans looking to use their GI Bill benefits.
In written statements, the advocacy group Veterans for Common Sense told lawmakers at a May 16 hearing that Obama’s order was a “step in the right direction” that “will keep predatory recruiters off installations, prevent misleading advertisements using the term ‘GI Bill,’ and orders further vigilance in acting against those for-profits that abuse or violate laws and regulations.
“This is not political, it is not about free enterprise,” the group said in a statement, “it is about right and wrong.”