Veterans' organizations are lauding a new, online system to quickly let the government know when veterans or their family members encounter problems with their education benefits, including predatory student loan programs, questionable school academic credentials and misleading ads.
Since the creation of the Post-9/11 GI Bill in 2008 there have been a growing number of incidents of schools targeting vets for the guaranteed tuition payments they represent while offering the veteran or family member little support and useless or impractical degrees or certificates, veterans groups and Congress have found.
The new centralized reporting system, which brings into play the Department of Veterans Affairs and Defense Department, as well as the Justice and Education departments, Federal Trade Commission and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, will be "a game-changer for student veterans," according to the head of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
VFW National Commander William A. Thien said student vets, or eligible family members and dependents, going to school on the GI Bill "didn't [previously] have a standardized secure system for reporting alleged abuses."
The VFW, along with The American Legion and other veterans groups have been calling for several years for greater transparency regarding schools' recruiting and accepting veterans.
For-profit schools have been specifically eyed by veterans' groups and lawmakers. During a Senate hearing in 2013, an Iraq War vet who went to work for a for-profit school said officials considered tuition assistance for servicemembers "the military gravy train."
Steve Gonzalez, assistant director of The American Legion's Veterans Employment and Education Division, said the online reporting system "will now give the [agencies] responsible for its creation the tools needed to identify and address unfair, deceptive, and misleading practices performed by institutions of higher learning."
Allison A. Hickey, under secretary for benefits at the VA, said the feedback the VA will get from veterans, service members and their families will enable it to strengthen enforcement of the "Principles of Excellence" it requires for schools serving veterans.
These principles include providing students with a personalized form detailing the complete costs of the education program, as well as educational plans for all veteran and military education beneficiaries, designating a point of contact to aid with academic and financial advice, ensuring accreditation of all new programs before enrolling students and having in place refund policies that are in line with federal laws governing federal student financial aid programs.
In cases where the student is still on active duty or has a reserve commitment, the school is required to accommodate the servicemember.
In its announcement Thursday, the VA said students can submit a complaint when they believe their school is falling short in any of these areas.
"When feedback is received, agencies will contact the school on behalf of the student and work toward a resolution," according to the statement. "Complaints and their resolution will be forwarded to the Federal Trade Commission Consumer Sentinel Network, accessible by over 650 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies for use in enhancing and coordinating law enforcement investigations."
Wayne Robinson, president and chief executive officer for Student Veterans of America, said it's important that the government ensure veterans "receive a positive educational experience and that we hold higher education institutions to the same high bar we hold our nation's servicemembers."
"This online complaint system is designed to do just that. It empowers student veterans and gives the 'Principles of Excellence' a significant backbone on which to rest," he said.