There’s been some new activity on the issue of veterans’ education that may come as a surprise to many. Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed new laws that follow up on President Obama’s April 2012 executive order providing protection to military students and veterans from predatory colleges, diploma mills, and student loan agencies. The new regulations, HR 4057, require the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to examine, develop, or achieve the following new elements of GI Bill education funding programs:
- A clear and effective way to provide veterans with the “educational and vocational counseling” they are entitled to under the GI Bill’s education provisions.
- “A centralized way to track and publish feedback from students and State approving agencies regarding the quality of instruction and accreditation, recruiting practices, and post-graduation employment placement of institutions of higher learning.”
- An explanation of how information about colleges and universities is shared among various approval and state regulatory agencies.
- “The manner in which information regarding institutions of higher learning is provided to individuals participating in the Transition Assistance Program under section 1144 of title 10.”
- “The most effective way to provide veterans and members of the Armed Forces with information regarding postsecondary education and training opportunities available to the veteran or member.”
The surprise is not the passage of the legislation—after all, the president’s executive order was passed months ago after more than a year of congressional investigations into accusations of fraud and predatory lending at for-profit colleges and universities and the release of the Harkin Report that detailed such instances of fraud. Rather, the surprise is that the bill has drawn enthusiastic support from some of the very for-profit institutions that were investigated. For example, the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities (APSCU) issued the following statement:
“This is a bill that APSCU has supported from its inception…Since the enactment of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, 152,000 veterans, spouses and dependents have chosen to attend career colleges and universities. We are proud of the education these veterans receive at our schools and look forward to continuing to provide them with training and instruction resulting in success in civilian life and in the 21st Century workforce. APSCU is prepared to do the hard work that lies ahead and welcomes anyone, at anytime, to join us in continuing the evolution of this conversation out of the realm of political rhetoric and into thoughtful policy discussions with the end goal of arming our veterans with the resources they need to make the best academic decisions.”
A Step in the Right Direction
One reason the APSCU’s statement of support is so surprising is that the organization is currently engaged in a new lawsuit against US Department of Education (USDOE) regulations that the Huffington Post described as designed to “make for-profit colleges disclose statistics that would indicate whether students are likely to take on huge debts they cannot repay.” Like the original regulations in the USDOE’s reform package, which were struck down by a federal judge in June, the APSCU claims that such measures will not really help students and are instead “punitive” attempts to limit the expansion of the for-profit college industry.
The back-and-forth between government regulations and private industry lawsuits has created a contentious and negative dynamic that is the exact opposite of the kind of cooperation that schools need in order to flourish. The problems facing American college students today will not be solved by administrative power struggles and turf wars. That’s why the APSCU’s press in support of the new congressional legislation is a good step in the right direction toward dialogue and compromise.
Compromise may not be what’s necessary in this case. Though the bill directs the Secretary of Education to “develop a comprehensive policy to improve outreach and transparency to veterans and members of the Armed Forces through the provision of information on institutions of higher learning,” the new congressional regulations do not contain any specific stipulation requiring for-profit colleges to disclose financial information. Instead, the regulations require the USDOE to conduct a “market survey” to gauge which colleges and universities provide online ways for students to determine if they are ready for college, what remedial work they may need to do to develop college readiness, and what post-secondary education options are available to them.
This is not enough. Students are drowning in college debt right now. They need more comprehensive information regarding the possible total costs of their education, the way student loans work, and what they may eventually end up paying for college. This should not be too much to ask from a college or university.
The irony is that compliance with the regulations the for-profit industry is trying to block with their lawsuit would go far toward rehabilitating the tarnished image that many for-profit institutions have since the frauds committed by bad actors in the industry were revealed. In order to restore consumer confidence, the for-profit education industry should embrace even further regulations that may further demonstrate a concern for students that seems missing from the more egregious stories of fraud and misrepresentation. They should consider the value of their current lawsuit and compare it to the potential damage to their reputations that pursuit of such legislative obstruction could do to their reputations. These colleges and universities have suffered from declining enrollments—they can’t afford for students to associate them with poor practices.
That’s why the APSCU’s press release supporting HR 4057 is a step in the right direction. It signals that the industry is concerned about students and does not necessarily reject working with federal regulators. Let’s see if they follow it up with more indications of a willingness to work toward a more transparent system for students.