WASHINGTON — The marketing firm behind GIBill.com will shut down that website, scale back more than a dozen others and pay $2.5 million in penalties under terms of a settlement with state attorneys general over deceptive advertising practices aimed at student veterans.
Veterans groups and Department of Veterans Affairs officials hailed the announcement as much-needed victory over the tactics of for-profit colleges, who they say have targeted those students as potential cash cows for their schools. Industry representatives called it smear campaign.
The settlement is the result of a monthlong investigation into the practices of QuinStreet, an online marketing firm whose clients include a host of for-profit colleges. Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway said called the company and its use of the GIBill.com website “the most egregious example” he has seen of misinformation and greed directed at veterans.
“This is a public trust issue,” he said. “We have many publicly traded companies taking a funnel of taxpayer money intended to educate veterans, and instead giving them credits they can’t transfer, debt they can’t discharge and putting them in a hole. That’s unconscionable.”
The website, which offered information on veteran education benefits and careers, consistently redirected visitors to a small group of for-profit schools as the best place to use their GI Bill tuition.
State attorneys charged that the website managers did little to acknowledge their site was not an official government information page, or that those for-profit schools in many cases would cost them more money than public school options.
Conway said the investigation included a review of 8,000 emails to QuinStreet through the GIBill.com site, many of which came from veterans who thought they were communicating with government officials. Under the settlement, the GIBill.com domain will be handed over to VA officials, who will use it to redirect web surfers to the VA’s official GI Bill site. Social media accounts associated with the page will be shut down.
In addition, QuinStreet agreed to put disclaimers on other military-themed sites clearly stating they are not connected with the government, and refrain from using the term “GI Bill” in the address of any future sites.
Conway would not say whether any of the schools that helped fund the site will also face future sanctions. Many of the officials at the settlement announcement used the event to take aim again at the for-profit industry.
“Dollar signs in uniform, that’s how the for-profits see our troops and veterans,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. “If we’re going to continue to fund the GI Bill, we need to make sure those dollars are being well spent, and not being used for misleading advertising and recruiting.”
VA data shows that about one in four veterans using the post-9/11 GI Bill attend a for-profit school, but the industry accounts for 37 percent of the total tuition payouts.
Veterans of Foreign Wars Deputy Legislative Director Ryan Gallucci said veterans groups worry that lawmakers could see the education benefit as wasted money if it continues to flow to for-profit schools to fund questionable degrees with limited job prospects.
He praised the settlement, saying it helps “ensure our veterans have access to the quality education they earned.”
In a statement, Steve Gunderson, president of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, condemned “any activity by companies that mislead veterans,” and noted that industry officials are working on get rid of any such practices in the future.
But Gunderson also noted that for-profit schools provide an important alternative for student veterans, and other industry officials grumbled that the settlement was used as a vehicle to unfairly attack the reputation of all such schools.
Conway and other attorneys general said they aren’t trying to shut down the for-profit industry, but are closely monitoring numerous reports of misleading and overly aggressive marketing by those schools. Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden said he believes the whole industry has been tainted by the problem.
“This is about fraud,” he said. “I know there are some good actors out there, but until they clean up, I tell people to call their community college, or a state college. I don’t have faith in them.”