Treatment of military veterans by for-profit colleges and universities was the focus of a heated American Legion-hosted roundtable discussion Thursday as the organization's 94th national convention activities kicked off in Indianapolis. The discussion, coordinated by The American Legion's National Economic Commission, provided representatives of the for-profit education industry a forum to defend their institutions and dispute the intentions of a congressional report released last month.
The first half of the session centered on pending legislation and an executive order by President Obama that would require more information be provided to post-9/11 GI Bill beneficiaries before they make their choices for higher education.
Roundtable moderator Steve Gonzalez, a deputy director in the Legion's Economic Division, said the president's April 29 executive order, signed at a televised Fort Stewart, Ga. ceremony, was a "good first step" in helping veterans make the right educational choices. The roundtable discussion made it clear, however, that many more steps must be taken to break down stereotypes about the higher education business.
The discussion also addressed concerns about veterans squandering their education benefits by using the funds inappropriately or ignoring the financial consequences of taking out high-interest loans to supplement their GI Bill benefits. That led to a general discussion of responsibility and who should be charged with educating student veterans about college, its costs and career expectations after graduation.
"At the end of the day, everyone is responsible for themselves and for taking themselves from point A to point B," said Suzanne Palmer of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities. "During that journey, however, it is helpful to have the right tools and information and resources. But, ultimately, if you are taking a benefit that you have earned through your service to your country, you are responsible for making the best of it."
Dr. Joseph Wescott of the North Carolina State Approving Agency, which screens and supervises educational courses and programs offered to veterans, amplified Palmer's argument. "Yes, it is the responsibility of the veteran," he said. "But we have the responsibility – as a state agency or federal agency – to make sure that they are given the resources and the right information. That's where state approving agencies have been saying, ‘OK, we've got this wonderful benefit ...well, let's make sure we're using at an institution that provides quality education and will end up, hopefully, in a job for that veteran.'
The process of teaching veterans about higher education should begin, it was agreed, well before discharge and with emphasis during "the last week before transitioning out of the military," Wescott said. He pointed to, as had others in the discussion, a U.S. Marine Corps initiative that, in Wescott's words, "has them talking about becoming a veteran when they come in."
The discussion then gravitated toward a scathing report issued this summer by staff from the Democratic majority of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, chaired by Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin. The so-called "Harkin Report" was the 249-page culmination of a half dozen congressional hearings, three previous reports and numerous document requests to the 30 for-profit schools analyzed. The report revealed high student veteran dropout rates. Veteran recruitment tactics were questioned, as were curricula that did not produce adequate credits, credentials and degrees.
Immediately upon the release of the Harkin Report in late July, the University of Phoenix, one of the for-profit schools profiled, responded with an op-ed by Mark Brenner, Senior Vice president for External Affairs with the Apollo Group, owner of the school.
"Our record of responsibly providing a quality and accredited education to our nation's military is above reproach," said Brenner. "We continue to lead efforts with Congress and the White House to enhance and expand protections for those in the armed forces. We actively support bipartisan, common-sense reforms that apply to all schools. We joined with various veterans' service organizations to outline specific reforms to support and protect military students."
A University of Phoenix spokesperson, Conwey Casillas, augmented his school's stance during the Legion roundtable, accusing Harkin and his staff of "cherry picking" evidence to malign the institution. "I'll just give you one example," he said. "One of the charges in the report was that we have aggressive recruitment. But, (the Harkin committee) relied on a recruitment training manual that we provided them that is almost a decade old. This whole process began with an information request that came from the chairman to 30 schools. And so we sent them truckloads of information. They went through those truckloads of information and selected the things they wanted to focus on and painted a picture.
"There was no recognition of the fact that regulations now in place and (that) we use are different," Casillas said. "Today, schools are prohibited from compensating recruiters based on the number of students enrolled or the value of the financial aid they receive. The conclusion would be that they (the committee) wanted to portray us in a certain way. I was pleased that in public statements the senator has acknowledged the importance of our schools in the education of non-traditional students with flexible schedules and so forth – but yet he used outdated data in his report."
"Conwey was a bit more diplomatic than I'm about to be," Palmer said after Casillas spoke. "I think throughout the last two years, Chairman Harkin's rhetoric has evolved from, ‘I acknowledge that the for-profit sector has a role; it does provides opportunities for certain students' to: ‘For profit schools are bad, and even the ones that aren't bad – because of the profit motive – will be soon enough.'
"I don't believe that he genuinely thinks that there's a role for our schools in educating our veterans, the military, grandmothers, sisters, brothers, kids, anybody," Palmer continued. "I think that he seriously wants to shut down the sector or at least disable it to the point that it's no longer in anyone's interest to offer that type of education."
Air Force veteran Jim Hendrickson, vice president of Colorado Technical University's Department of Military Education, followed Palmer with an argument favoring expansion of Harkin-type investigations to include all institutions that accept GI Bill compensation, not just for-profit schools.
"I wholly agree that (Harkin's) data was skewed and was used improperly," Hendrickson said. "There's (also) no comparison with any other areas. It's hard to say that a report that draws conclusions without any comparisons has any value. For that reason, it's flawed. And because it's flawed from the very get-go you have to speculate – ‘What was the purpose and why was this sector selected over others?'"
"Some of the things that we've talked about, (the University of Phoenix) already does," Casillas said. "For instance, the president's executive order requires that an institution designate a specific individual with expertise in these matters to follow the student (and) be a contact or advocate for the student. We already assign three people per student. They have an enrollment counselor that stays with them through their course or program. We have a financial adviser that stays with them through the course of their program and we have an academic adviser that stays with them. Of course, we're supportive of policies that will improve the outcomes for student veterans. We've already implemented them."
Added Hendrickson: "We have the same model at our school. I attended public schools and private schools (as a veteran) and didn't have any support similar to what we have (at Colorado Tech). My feeling is that our students are in a much better situation than I was in as a veteran."
Michael Dakduk of the Student Veterans of America offered closing words of the day's discussion, citing the role media play in influencing public and political opinion of veterans' education. "There's room for improvement across the educational spectrum," he said. "(But) there are some things we can't control. We can't control what the media chooses to focus on, especially the big media corporations. When people ask me at roundtables like this, ‘What is the veteran community doing about this?', I say, ‘Look at our statements, look at the websites of The American Legion and the VFW and the SVA.' But, we can't control what MSNBC or CNN or The Washington Post puts out. I think this (roundtable) is a testament to what key players are really doing."
Other roundtable participants included Orfa Torres-Jaen, a staff member of the U.S. House Committee on Veterans Affairs, and her committee colleague Jon Clark. Margaret Baechtold of Indiana University also joined the discussion.
The Legion's Economic Commission chairman, Dale Barnett, was seated at the table throughout and vowed to communicate the panel's views to Legion leadership.