Military & Veterans

Protect the New G.I. Bill

March 21, 2012 

THE Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, which since 2009 has sent veterans to postsecondary schools, has so far cost more than $17.2 billion. That figure should not alarm. The 700,000 vets who so far have received schooling under the new G.I. Bill stand to return to society, over their working lifetimes, manyfold the public’s investment in their tuition and other fees–if flimflam artists don’t hijack the system.

To prevent this, Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), author of the revamped G.I. Bill, is co-sponsoring a bill to shoo away from the honey pot for-profit schools that spend millions luring Afghanistan- and Iraq-era vets to programs that teach them little except a dear lesson in human avarice. The Military and Veterans Educational Reform Act would ensure veterans, says Mr. Webb, that their G.I. Bill benefits “will not be lost or squandered on an education that fails to equip them with skills they need to be successful.”

The American taxpayer also could use some assurance. Eight of the 10 educational institutions collecting the most VA benefits are for-profit schools. This is not unrelated to the fact that, in 2009, as the new G.I. Bill took effect, 15 Wall Street-traded educational firms spent $3.7 billion on pitching their products to vets. That marketing onslaught, suggests Mr. Webb, often enticed veterans “into poorly performing for-profit schools”–which cost taxpayers on average twice as much in G.I. Bill outlays as public institutions.

The for-profit colleges’ salesmanship can be aggressive–and low. Daniel Golden of Bloomberg News has reported that at Camp Lejeune, N.C., a recruiter from one such college visited the Wounded Warrior Barracks, where she signed up brain-injured Marines “who even had difficulty remembering what courses they were taking.” Combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder often end up taking the for-profits’ computer courses alone in their homes, Mr. Golden told “Frontline,” when what they really need is a classroom environment and normal human interaction.

Sen. Webb’s reform legislation shouldn’t be viewed as an assault on non-public schools per se. A veteran using the G.I. Bill can get a good education at Mary Washington or Washington & Lee or Strayer; Virginia Tech or Virginia Wesleyan or the University of Phoenix–all with honest and competent program administration. But it’s around the for-profit sector where the skunks find a hole in the fence.

Mr. Webb would patch the hole by requiring that educational programs accepting G.I. Bill money be certified by a government-approved accrediting agency, which is already true of civilian-targeted Pell Grants. Schools marked by high dropout rates would be subject to sanctions. State agencies that oversee G.I. Bill payments to schools would have to audit participating institutions rather than just take their spot in the bucket brigade. All this aims at identifying and expelling programs that poorly serve both the taxpayer and the young person who’s trying to become a double asset to the country for which he or she risked all.

Under the first G.I. Bill, which ran from the waning days of World War II to 1956, 7.8 million veterans received advanced education. “The best piece of legislation ever passed by the U.S. Congress,” said the late historian Stephen Ambrose, “and it made modern America.” The Military and Veterans Educational Reform Act would protect that honorable pedigree and that hopeful precedent–and help make the most of veterans’ finite, 36-month supply of educational aid.