Report: GI Bill pilot program protects against risky schools

Report: GI Bill pilot program protects against risky schools

A six-state pilot program to evaluate risk among schools that accept GI Bill education beneficiaries has “demonstrated that the bipartisan action taken to protect students and taxpayers can and does work,” according to a new report from EducationCounsel, LLC, the National Association of State Approving Agencies and The American Legion.

The American Legion was represented on a 22-member advisory council that worked to solve problems student veterans have faced for over a decade, largely from for-profit schools that don’t meet standards or shut their doors before a degree is achieved, and GI Bill credits are forfeited.

Those problems, according to the report, include sudden school closures, inability to transfer credits, deceptive marketing and recruitment practices and “consistently poor institutional performance, leaving majorities of … graduates without sufficient earnings to repay their loans, or simply failing to graduate most of their students at all.”

The American Legion has called for increased scrutiny of schools that accept GI Bill benefits since the organization’s National Executive Committee passed an October 2011 resolution calling for “oversight and legislation evaluating post-secondary education institutions on quality factors such as accreditation, transferability, cost, graduation rates and military members on selection and attendance.” The resolution also urged legislation to increase funding for state approving agencies that provide oversight of institutions seeking approval to receive GI Bill users.

The Legion reiterated its position for stricter review of schools in a 2016 resolution, following the closures of some for-profit schools that left veterans with nothing to show for their GI Bill-funded educations and noting that “more than 30 federal and state law-enforcement agencies have made findings, in ongoing investigations or lawsuits – and in 15 federal and state settlements since 2012 – that some institutions of higher learning have deceived students about the schools’ quality of education, tuition and cost, transferability of credits, accreditation, and graduates’ job prospects and salary, including deceptions about graduates’ eligibility to work in licensed occupations.”

The Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017 – named for the American Legion past national commander who drafted the original 1944 GI Bill and more commonly known as the “Forever GI Bill” – advanced the call for better oversight, and the Isakson-Roe Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act of 2020 requires that by October 2022 all state approving agencies use a risk-based model to determine eligibility of schools.

The six-state pilot model was also built to increase scrutiny without overtaxing state approving agency staff and resources. The model was tested in Texas, Illinois, New York, Delaware, Virginia and Nevada.

The model “focuses limited budgets, time, and staff on the areas of inquiry that matter – completion, debt, earnings, risk of closure, complaints and misleading practices – and on the programs impacting the most students,” the report states. “With the impact of COVID, it becomes even more important to design a system that accounts for identified risk factors and allows for oversight of program quality when in-person site visits are impracticable.”

“Risk-based reviews are a critical example of the federal government taking bipartisan action to protect student veterans and taxpayers, and this pilot shows that such a system works,” said James LaCoursiere, American Legion Veterans Employment and Education Commission chairman. “That’s why the National Executive Committee of The American Legion unanimously supported a resolution to promptly adopt and deploy risk-based reviews to protect our veterans and the integrity of the GI Bill.”

American Legion Veterans Employment & Education Division Director Joseph Sharpe was a member of the advisory council, and American Legion higher-education consultant and former president of the National Association of State Approving Agencies Joseph Wescott, PhD, contributed to the report.

“Risk-based reviews are a game-changer,” Wescott said. “This new model allows staff to focus on protecting students from schools that leave them worse off or are likely to suddenly shut down.”

Lack of a comprehensive review model played into problems GI Bill users have had with some schools in recent years, the report noted. “Over the past two decades, the limited ability to conduct consistent and comprehensive reviews coincided with the growth in tactics and practices by some colleges that harmed student veterans and students more broadly. Many of these practices made headlines, and the harm to students and taxpayers from deceptive and predatory recruiting tactics, and financial collapse of high-risk institutions like ITT and Corinthian Colleges were obvious. These events are certainly damaging to students – who often are unaware of the significant financial problems at these schools until they show up one day to find padlocks on the doors – and taxpayers, who end up footing the bill for closed-school discharges, defaulted loans and borrower defense claims.”

With funding from the Lumina Foundation – and pro bono support from Nelson, Mullins, Riley and Scarborough – the National Association of State Approving Agencies and EducationCounsel crafted the pilot design to directly address risk factors, such as financial stability and student dissatisfaction, of institutions.

Schools received numerical scores based on various criteria, and site visits revealed ongoing problems including “deceptive advertising of awards received by schools, enrollment quotas for recruiters, student complaints about academic quality that went unaddressed by state licensing agencies and schools with severely limited cash reserves that posed a serious risk of collapse.”

The risk-based review model also allows state approving agencies “to prioritize their resources on schools that pose the most risk to taxpayers and to military-connected students, rather than a narrower focus on payment compliance,” the report states.

The American Legion National Executive Committee passed a resolution in October 2021 calling on VA to “promptly adopt and deploy nationally a risk-based survey model to protect our veterans and the integrity of the GI Bill Educational Program.”

The six-state test has demonstrated that such a new process is ready. “This pilot has demonstrated that risk-based, outcomes-focused reviews are feasible, effective for regulators and students and can be realistically implemented, right now,” said Nathan Arnold, senior adviser with EducationCounsel. “The evidence from this pilot shows that public data can be used to effectively prioritize limited oversight resources, and this is a model that can be used by accreditors, state authorizers and Department of Education program reviews and enforcement.”

The report strongly recommends better coordination between states and the federal government to ensure quality, consistent oversight of schools that accept GI Bill beneficiaries. “In two years of designing and implementing this pilot, it has become clearer than ever that improved coordination is needed within and among states. Many of the historical failures to proactively identify risky schools share a common denominator: a need for better communication among actors within a state and nationally, among states. Often, bad actors benefit from a lack of coordination. This is because multiple agencies responsible for different components of a school’s compliance aren’t aware that other agencies are finding problems with the same school, failing to see the big picture of a school in trouble on multiple fronts.”

Also factoring into the issue is the fast rise, during the COVID-19 pandemic, of online learning programs. “Colleges operating multi-state online programs pose additional challenges for regulators,” the report states. “Lack of coordination leads to a lack of clear responsibility, where even in obviously harmful situations, different oversight bodies wait for others to act first. Building a consistent, agreed-upon set of elements of institutional quality will help improve coordination among oversight entities and ultimately lead to better oversight of risky institutions.”