On April 27, President Barack Obama issued Executive Order #13607, which is designed to protect military students from predatory practices at some for-profit colleges by requiring all colleges to provide more transparency about costs and degree completion data. Many colleges, both nonprofit and for-profit, responded with such significant concerns about the Order that the Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity of the United States House of Representatives Committee on Veterans’ Affairs held an investigatory hearing regarding the new regulations on May 16, 2012.
Representatives from the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, American Association of State Colleges and Universities, Indiana University, and the University of Illinois testified about the impact the new regulations will have on their business practices. The concerns raised were proof that sometimes the logistical realities of reform regulations are more complex than they appear at first.
For example, Judith Flink, the Executive Director of University Student Financial Services for the University of Illinois represented the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO). She stated that,
“NACUBO shares the President’s goals as outlined in his April 27th Executive Order establishing principles of excellence for educational institutions serving veterans, service members and their families. We affirm that these students-indeed all students-deserve high quality academic and support services that enable them to make informed decisions about their education. We strongly support safeguards against abusive and deceptive recruiting practices.”
However, Flink also raised several specific concerns related to the provisions of the Executive Order:
- Section 2(a) of the E.O. requires colleges to provide students with personalized, standardized statements outlining their total educational costs, the financial aid for which they qualify, and their estimated student loan debt upon graduation. Designed to curb some of the borrowing that has led to historic highs in student loan debt, Flink conceded that this information would be great for students to have before enrolling. However, she pointed out that, in reality, such statements will be nearly impossible to achieve because, among other things: 1) some students do not submit the Federal Application for Financial Aid (FAFSA) until after they have enrolled; 2) “that imposition of specific formats will not serve the needs of students and their families given the enormous variation in educational programs.”
- Section 2(e) allows service members to be readmitted to programs “if they are temporarily unable to attend class,” presumably to allow service members to fulfill sudden military needs without losing money when they are deployed in the middle of a semester. However, it does not specify how colleges should manage difficult situations, such as the termination of a program or lengthy absence that would impact other aspects of a student’s education.
- Section 2(f), which requires colleges to participate in a refund policy, “could create significant enrollment planning and budgeting challenges for institutions of higher education, “including lost revenue from seats that could have been filled all semester by a paying student whose aid was not refunded.
- Section 2(h) mandates that schools maintain a specific advising process just for veterans and service members and their families, which many schools already do. But Flink claims that the “ability to provide adequate financial counseling to veterans is severely impeded by the VA’s tightly held control over most veteran information including their eligibility for VA education benefits and their indebtedness to the agency.”
- Section 3 focuses on student learning outcomes based on graduation rates. However, Flink pointed out, “many veterans and service members are nontraditional students; many attend multiple institutions during their educational career and each of the institutions contributes to the student’s success. Some veterans and service members achieve their educational goals by completing a small number of classes that provide specific knowledge or skills required for their service or employment. These students would regard their completion of these courses as a successful outcome, whereas the measurements included in the Executive Order which are based solely on graduation rates would not.”
By contrast, the Student Veterans of America (SVA) largely support most of the Executive Order’s provisions because they favor strong oversight over colleges and universities that actively recruit veterans, service members, and their families. Michael Dakduk, the Executive Director of SVA, told the House committee that the SVA “believes it is essential that federal dollars be spent on programs that are likely to lead to meaningful employment and good careers.” Therefore, he said, even though
“SVA also recognizes that schools may be burdened by the requirement to collect and provide this information. However, it is our position that this burden is far outweighed by the benefits of attracting those veterans who are eligible for education benefits, and remain convinced that schools will need to only provide slightly more information to the VA to paint an accurate picture. Veterans, service members, and military families not only bring large amounts of federal funding, but also bring rich diversity and spirit to any campus. Veterans bring a unique set of experiences with them that enrich the classroom and the dialogue on campus.”
Clearly, there are many different stakeholders interested in the regulation of education students affiliated with the armed services. The good news is that despite differences over particular provisions in the Executive Order, they all seem to agree on one thing: it is important to make sure that VA benefits are used to secure quality education. The best solution to resolving the differences of opinion and practice suggested by the different groups that testified in the hearing may have been provided by Judith Flink, who said in her testimony,
“In light of these significant concerns, we ask that the agencies tasked with implementing this Executive Order actively consult with institutions and the organizations that represent them (like NACUBO, ACE, AASCU, and AACRAO) as they develop the necessary rules…Greater collaboration in the development of rules and sub-regulatory guidance would much better serve not just the DoD, VA, and institutions, but most importantly, the veterans, service members, and their families we all strive to serve.”
The interesting thing about this last statement is that greater collaboration among relevant participants in education reform would be beneficial in every area of education, not just educational opportunities for veterans.