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Accountability in military education

Tomorrow, April 27th, I will join the President and First Lady at Fort Stewart, Georgia, where he will sign an Executive Order directing the Departments of Education, Defense, and Veterans Affairs, in consultation with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), to take steps to ensure that servicemembers, veterans and their families can get the information they need about the schools where they spend their education benefits. His directive also strengthens oversight and accountability of the schools that offer educational programs to the military.

I applaud this effort to see that servicemembers, veterans, and their families get the most “bang for their buck” when they use their educational benefits. During the past year I’ve traveled to military installations in 15 states and spoken to active-duty, National Guard, and Reserve military members and their families. I’ve also met with veterans and their families, as well as those who advocate for them. One issue that has come up repeatedly in my conversations with them is the challenge of making an informed decision on where to use GI Bill and Military Tuition Assistance benefits. How do they find a quality school that will charge them a fair price, provide adequate support, and set them up for success after graduation without a mountain of student loan debt holding them back?

Too often the schools being selected are for-profit institutions more notable for their slick marketing than for their academic credentials and sound value, much less the gainful employment history of their graduates. Here are just a few stories I’ve heard on my travels:

  • An active-duty military spouse at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, was under the impression she was attending a “military-affiliated college” (she wasn’t; it was a for-profit school with no official military status). After she filled out an interest form she was called 10-15 times a day until she enrolled. When she had trouble logging on to her online class, she couldn’t get anyone from the college to help her. She failed the class due to lack of access but was charged the full fee.
  • National Guard education officers in Ohio and North Carolina told me they are besieged by for-profit colleges desiring access to the troops. They noted that if they hold a job fair, over half the tables may be for-profit colleges, and that servicemembers may see a school’s presence at a job fair as an implied promise that you will get a job if you graduate from that school.
  • A veteran at a forum I attended in Chicago, Illinois, had used up her benefits and incurred $100,000 in student loan debt for Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from a for-profit college, but was unable to find an employer who was interested in her degrees. She was still working at the same job she had before she went to college.

The CFPB has been working on military education issues. This month at we began testing a new online tool, the Financial Aid Comparison Shopper, which includes a military benefits calculator, to help people compare options at different colleges, as well as see graduation and retention rates. We have set up a student loan complaint system, and my office reviews all complaints from servicemembers, veterans, and their families. And we’ve been coordinating with the Federal Trade Commission and the Departments of Justice, Education, Veterans Affairs, and Defense on military education issues.

It’s in everyone’s interest to see that military education dollars are well-spent. If they are, they will provide our country with educated veterans and family members who, like the World War II generation before them, can become the engine that drives our economy forward.

Holly Petraeus leads the Office of Servicemember Affairs at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Last year, she wrote about the incentives that lead for-profit colleges to see servicemembers as “nothing more than dollar signs in uniforms.”

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