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Senate OKs bill aimed at protecting GI benefits

Dec. 20, 2012 - 06:16AM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 20, 2012 - 06:16AM  |  
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A landmark veterans bill aimed at protecting valuable GI Bill benefits from being wasted passed the Senate late Wednesday and is on its way to final passage in the House.

The compromise bill prevents schools that receive veterans' education benefits from paying bounties for recruiting students and requires the VA to provide more consumer-oriented information to help veterans pick which schools to attend.

Called the Improving Transparency of Education Opportunities for Veterans Act, the measure was first introduced by Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., a member of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee who is concerned that veterans lack information to make wise choices when it comes to choosing schools.

"As our nation's heroes make the transition from the battlefield to civilian life, we must do everything we can to arm veterans with the information they need to make informed decisions about their educational benefits, and ultimately ensure they remain competitive in today's market," Bilirakis said in a statement about the bill, HR 4057.

Although Bilirakis is the sponsor, the final bill is the result of negotiations between the House and Senate veterans' affairs committees, which had their own separate legislation. Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., the lawmaker behind creation of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, was chief sponsor of the Senate's similar legislation.

Some of the consumer-related information is being collected by the VA under an executive order signed earlier this year by President Obama.

Part of the purpose of the bill is to have information available in one place. Veterans' advocates have said that would make it easier for a person who has spent years in the service and doesn't know much about higher educational institutions to discover facts that would help her decide which school to attend. A provision of the compromise bill tells the VA to avoid duplication with other programs as much as possible, suggesting the VA needs to have a only single website that contains links to information outside the VA, such as Education Department guides for non-veterans.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the House Veterans Affairs' Committee chairman, said one of the reasons for pushing the bill is to try to prevent veterans, who generally have only 36 months of GI Bill benefits, from wasting them on courses or institutions that don't meet their long-term goals.

"This bipartisan legislation will provide much needed tools for student veterans to make better informed decisions on how to use their educational benefits," Miller said in a statement. "By empowering veterans with more information for post-secondary educational options, their hard-earned benefit will go further to put them on a path to meaningful employment in the civilian sector."

The list of what the VA would be required to have available is quite long, but it includes common facts such as tuition and fees, graduation and dropout rates, whether the schools have academic and technical support available, if there are job counseling and placement services, and information about accepting credits transferred from other schools. The VA would not have to provide information about whether a school's credits are transferable because the school might not know and, in some cases, would prefer not to admit that that its credits often cannot be transferred to major four-year colleges or universities, according to congressional aides.

Less common information, such as the name and contact information of the academic body that accredits a school; information about the state approving agency that cleared the school to receive veterans' education benefits; and who to contact with complaints about a school also would have to be available, under terms of the bill transferring credits from one school to another.

The anti-bounty provision is aimed at aggressive recruiting by some for-profit schools eager to sign up veterans whose GI Bill payments would go directly to the institution. In some cases, veterans attending these schools also end up with large student loan debts because the schools cost more than the GI Bill pays.

Under the bill, the VA is barred from paying for any course offered by any educational institution that pays a commission bonus or any incentive pay for enrolling veterans. Direct or indirect payments lead to an institution being denied veterans' education payments.

Lawmakers expect quick action by the VA. The prohibition on using inducements for recruiting would take effect 90 days after the bill is signed into law. Also within 90 days, the VA would have to provide Congress with a plan for providing the required consumer information on schools.

While tough on some for-profit schools, the bill is endorsed by the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities. The group's president, Steve Gunderson, called it "important legislation" that creates a formal process to look at schools.

"We are appreciative of the veteran service organizations for their efforts to make this important legislation a reality," Gunderson said. "This is a good example of how we can all work together to ensure all students have the resources and support they need to make the best academic decisions."

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