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Obama cracks down on schools targeting troops

Apr. 26, 2012 - 09:50PM   |   Last Updated: Apr. 26, 2012 - 09:50PM  |  
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President Obama is wrapping up a week of talking about student loans with the signing of an executive order that attempts to limit deceptive or misleading practices by schools that target current and former service members and their families.

"Since the Post-9/11 GI Bill became law, there have been reports of aggressive and deceptive targeting of service members, veterans, and their families by educational institutions, particularly for-profit career colleges," the White House said in a release.

The order Obama is expected to sign Friday during a visit to Fort Stewart, Ga., will require schools receiving the GI Bill or other Defense Department-funded veterans education benefits or tuition assistance to disclose more information to students using military tuition assistance, including a breakdown of the percentage of service members and veterans who complete courses or degrees, according to White House officials.

Course completion information and graduate rates are already available for most schools, but are not broken down by how service members or veterans might fare, White House officials said.

The executive order makes other changes:

• Schools that receive GI Bill or tuition assistance will be required to have academic and financial counselors for service members and veterans, and to ease policies for enrollment, re-enrollment and refunds if military-related duties interfere with classes.

• The government will attempt to trademark the term "GI Bill," which would give the government the right to prevent unscrupulous institutions from using the name in advertising and on websites.

• Schools with overly aggressive or unscrupulous recruiting practices will be barred from military bases, blocking access to prospective students.

• A centralized complaint system will be created, with access to investigators, prosecutors and policymakers who enforce the law and regulations.

• Schools that fully comply with federal rules will be listed on a federal website, such as the VA's GI Bill website, while schools that don't comply will be excluded from listings.

Changes moving through Congress

The White House has cherry-picked from veterans organizations' recommendations and from pending legislation to come up with immediate steps that can be ordered by Obama without waiting for Congress.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee chairman, has introduced the GI Bill Consumer Awareness Act of 2012, which has provisions similar to parts of the executive order, although her measure is more detailed.

For example, Murray's bill requires the disclosure of student loan debt, transferability of credits earned, the number of veterans enrolled, job placement rates, and success in professional licensing or certification by students who have completed classes — far more information than covered by the executive order.

Her bill requires schools to have at least one employee who is knowledgeable about military and veterans education benefits; and to provide tutoring, career counseling, referrals to vet centers and other help for veterans, requirements that exceed the White House's order that schools provide academic and financial counseling.

Additionally, Murray's bill, endorsed by major veterans groups, requires VA to provide educational counseling to any veteran who seeks it.

Free enterprise

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the House Veterans' Affairs Committee chairman, said the executive order is unnecessary and is an attack on the free enterprise system that created for-profit schools.

"There are already ample resources to police the ‘bad actors' in the education system," he said, stressing this is "a characteristic not limited to for-profit schools."

There are state agencies that inspect and approve schools on behalf of VA, the Federal Trade Commission can address false advertising, and organizations that accredit schools "have the ability to enforce standards and refer violations of law and regulations to the appropriate enforcement agency, while state licensing authorities can also shut down a school's operations completely," Miller said.

If students want to compare schools, there are existing resources available, Miller said. "For example, any student applying for college can access the College Navigator website, which contains 272 data points on every school approved for federal education benefits. This data includes graduation rates, indebtedness, gender, ethnicity, public and private financial aid, school costs, student calculators, and hundreds of other factors related to school quality and performance," he said.

Instead of attacking for-profit schools, Miller said the president "could instead, use the bully pulpit to encourage states to grant veterans in-state tuition, accept military training credit, and allow credits to transfer from accredited institutions. Each of these would lower the cost of education for veterans, and taxpayers."

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