Stars and Stripes: Take vets out of education funding formula

Stars and Stripes
By Randy Proto

Recent military veterans, who face a higher unemployment rate than any other sector of the population, deserve all the educational opportunities we can give them after they’ve sacrificed so much for the country. In true Washington style, there’s an ironic twist shaping up in the debate about higher education quality, value and accountability — one in which veterans are being used, under the guise of consumer protection, as weapons to attack privately owned colleges and schools. As a result of legislation proposed by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., they may lose access to the very educational opportunities they want: the career and technical education offered by private-sector schools.

Veterans often choose these private-sector for-profit institutions over more traditional institutions for continuing their education. Historically, many made this choice because the trade-oriented education that private-sector schools focused on aligns well with the training format they experienced during their military service.

Convenience is also particularly important to veterans and to nontraditional students generally. Over the past few decades, private-sector schools have expanded their offerings to include many more degree programs and have deeply penetrated the online space, adding convenient degree completion options. Veterans responded positively; some even continued their education while serving. Currently, about 25 percent of veterans using the GI Bill choose to attend private-sector schools.

Today’s battle, being publicly spearheaded by Durbin: how veterans’ tuition should be treated in a formula that determines whether individual privately owned colleges, trade schools and universities survive.

The current formula, which only applies to for-profits and is called “90/10,” requires that students who choose to attend these schools provide no more than 90 percent of a school’s receipts via federal student loans and grants. Exceed the limit for two years and the school closes. Durbin’s legislation would change this formula to 85/15, disqualify schools after merely one year of noncompliance and shift the way GI Bill funds are counted.

The current law puts GI Bill funds in the 10 percent column, not the 90 percent, allowing more veterans to choose the trade-oriented education offered at private-sector schools.

Durbin and other critics of private-sector, for-profit education have been trying to use this formula as a weapon for years, as they know how difficult it is to adhere to. They now argue that veterans’ benefits should be counted in the reverse, pointing to cherry-picked and isolated examples of veterans being targeted by private-sector schools. But, pursuing this path doesn’t protect veterans; it limits them.

What’s the right thing to do? We should ensure veterans are not penalized and have the opportunities they deserve by not counting them in the formula at all. This isn’t a perfect solution, but it is the right choice. Sure, that may not make some of my for-profit colleagues happy, and it certainly won’t satisfy the opponents of for-profit education, but it will do what is right by making veterans’ benefits neutral in the formula.

Veterans should not be used as a tool to pressure a sector of higher education and gain political points. Using them in such a way simply threatens to take educational choices away from them. Veterans, of all people, have earned the right to make their own choice about their educational path.

Politicians and educators alike who are genuinely concerned with determining how well our veterans are being served by higher education can get at the truth simply: request the Department of Veterans Affairs conduct a comprehensive, unbiased survey of all veterans currently attending, and recent graduates of, any higher education institution and compare the results among institutional types. Then we would know, from the veterans themselves, which schools are serving their needs well.

In this age of nearly unlimited ability to ferret out data, using indirect “quality” measures like the “90/10” formula is absurd. Having lived with it, I can tell you firsthand that it has no relationship to quality or to student and taxpayer protection. Smart regulation is very important and necessary. But, like many misguided regulations, 90/10 sounds sensible but provides no real benefit — and some significant detriment to those it purportedly protects.

What would provide real protections are transparency regarding, and accountability for, outcomes across all of higher education. Veterans, taxpayers and all students deserve direct, consistent and comparable accountability and performance standards applied to all schools. To date, the Obama administration has made little progress in this regard.

Our faltering economy has exposed many flaws across all sectors of higher education. We need to correct them. Meanwhile, eliminating GI Bill benefits from this formula is both a way of protecting and respecting our veterans.

Randy Proto is CEO of American Institutes Holdings LLC, a group of five for-profit schools with locations in Florida, New Jersey and Connecticut. American Institutes is focused primarily on the delivery of degree and nondegree allied health-related programs, both residentially and on a distance basis, to more than 2,000 students annually. If Durbin’s legislation becomes law, American Institutes schools will be subject to the 85/15 funding formula.

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