Conwey Casillas from the University of Phoenix, Suzanne Palmer of APSCU and Paul Fain from Inside Higher Education spoke during the Veterans on Campus Education Roundtable discussion. (Photo by Tom Strattman)

President impacts education roundtable talk

On Aug. 22, a panel of industry and government experts gathered in Houston for an American Legion Veterans on Campus Education Roundtable discussion. The session was among Legion pre-convention activities.

The meeting’s published agenda called for the nine-member panel to "collectively look at the (federal) Higher Education Act (HEA) as a vehicle to advance our national interest and create a better educated workforce" and to determine "the extent to which the Act currently meets its purposes and new direction that will enable legislators, the (U.S.) Department of Education, the higher education community, and veterans service organizations to better serve society, servicemembers, veterans and their families." The HEA is the federal law that governs the administration of federal student aid programs.

While some of the Legion panel discussion concerned this primary agenda item, even more talk was devoted to an announcement made just that morning by President Barack Obama. He announced a plan that will "combat rising college costs and make college affordable" while increasing the quality of American education by eventually tying "federal student aid to college performance." The federal funding-related performance ratings, to be established by 2015, will be based in part upon graduation rates and measured "value for tuition dollars."

What concerned some panelists is that the president’s proposal, if enacted by Congress into law, might penalize schools that educate military veterans. One panel member, Conwey Casillas of the for-profit University of Phoenix, said the veterans’ academic retention rate among students at his school is higher than average. However, there are reports – such as Sen. Tom Harkin’s, D-Iowa, controversial and disputed review of the for-profit school industry – that lend themselves to damning and sometimes mistaken perceptions that may hurt some schools heavily invested in veterans’ education. Panelists agreed that the proposed school performance measurements be established with caution and a broad viewpoint.

"Educational success and school performance cannot be measured just by graduation rates and other statistics," said Amy Sherman of the Chicago-based Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) .

The panel, led by American Legion National Economic Commission Chairman Dale Barnett and Steve Gonzalez, assistant director of the Legion’s Economic Division in Washington, also considered the possible impact of rising tuition rates on veterans’ education. Expenses incurred beyond those covered by Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits can entail students’ assumption of loans that may prove difficult to repay. On a broader scale, it was speculated that Congressional support of increasing Post-9/11 GI Bill benefit payments, if needed to meet higher tuitions, might be resisted in the future.

Adoption of the Yellow Ribbon Program by a greater number of schools was cited by the panelists as one way to forestall such a consequence. The Yellow Ribbon Program allows approved institutions of higher learning and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to partially or fully fund tuition and fee expenses that exceed the established thresholds established by the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

Near the end of the two-hour Education Roundtable, Barnett said that some points of the discussion may inspire a Legion resolution and provide talking points for the new national commander’s testimony before a joint session of the House and Senate Committees on Veterans’ Affairs in September.