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President Barack Obama's high-profile signing April 27 of an executive order to protect Post-9/11 GI Bill users from predatory practices of for-profit schools is viewed by veterans' service organizations as a big step -- but only a first step -- toward curbing abuses within the U.S. education industry.
Before grabbing his signing pen, the president warned an audience of soldiers and service families at Fort Stewart, Ga., of "bad actors out there" who aggressively market substandard education plans to veterans and service members who have valuable GI Bill benefits and tuition assistance dollars.
"They'll say you don't have to pay a dime for your degree but once you register, they'll suddenly make you sign up for a high-interest student loan," Obama warned in his speech. "They'll say that if you transfer schools, you can transfer credits. But when you try to actually do that, you suddenly find out that you can't. ... They're trying to swindle and hoodwink you. And today, here at Fort Stewart, we're going to put an end to it."
Not quite all that, say veterans' education advocates.
Though they praise the White House for using existing executive authorities to better protect military and veterans' education benefits, vet groups say the job won't be done until harder-won corrective legislation is passed. The executive order also serves to draws new attention and momentum to that effort.
The order reflects many initiatives veterans groups have been pushing for since January, which also has resulted in a variety of new bills being introduced before the White House raced into the lead. The order directs the departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs and Education to establish "principles of excellence" for educational institutions target the military community to "strengthen oversight, enforcement and accountability."
The order notes that some schools have recruited veterans with "serious brain injuries or emotional vulnerabilities" without providing academic support or counseling. Some have pushed veterans into costly institutional loans rather than cheaper federal loans. Others refuse to disclose performance data such as graduation rates.
To address these issues, the executive order requires:
The VA will post on its website a list of schools receiving GI Bill benefits that agree to adhere to these requirements. New legislation would be needed to punish non-compliant schools more effectively, officials said.
Veterans groups and military associations had pressed the White House and Congress to "pull together an interagency effort." The president's order appears to do that, said Bob Norton, deputy director of government relations for Military Officers Association of America. "In other words, don't just pin it on the VA, because they are not educators. They provide funding. We need to have the departments of Education, VA and Defense Department and, to the extent enforcement is necessary, we need Justice in there as well."
A senior White House official said GI Bill and military tuition assistance dollars spent last year totaled $9 billion. So the president felt obligated to toughen oversight not just to protect veterans' benefits but also taxpayers.
"There are things you could do that would go even further, obviously, on like the 90-10 rule. But from the president's perspective, we identified a set of issues where we could use his executive authority to really get at the heart of a lot of what's going on right now," the official explained.
The "90-10 rule" of the Higher Education Act has a loophole that encourages for-profit schools to market aggressively to GI Bill beneficiaries. That hole is untouched by the executive order and remains a top priority for veterans' groups. The rule directs for-profit colleges to draw no more than 90 percent of revenues from Department of Education student grants or loans. In other words, courses must be of sufficient quality that at least 10 percent of payments come out of the pockets of students or their parents.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill law of 2008 effectively gutted the 90-10 rule as a quality measure. It allows schools that attract GI Bill dollars to count those monies against the 10 percent of revenue that must be collected from non-education department sources. So every GI Bill enrollee, in effect, allows in nine students with tuition and fees covered by other federal grants and loans.
While the executive order "adds much needed transparency" for student veterans to find the right school, said Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, "we also need to ensure that the loophole that rewards schools to target veterans is closed once and for all. Our community needs the president's and Congress' continued leadership ... to reform the 90-10 rule."