IAVA's Tom Tarantino Testifies on For Profit Schools Executive Order

Testimony of Tom Tarantino
Deputy Policy Director
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America
House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity
Hearing on Executive Order No.13607
May 16, 2012

Mister Chairman, Ranking Member, and members of the committee, on behalf of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America’s 200,000 Member Veterans and supporters, thank you for inviting me to testify on the President’s Executive Order establishing principals of excellence for education.

My name is Tom Tarantino and I am the Deputy Policy Director at IAVA. I proudly served 10 years in the Army beginning my career as an enlisted Reservist, and leaving service as an Active Duty Cavalry Officer. Throughout these 10 years, my single most important duty was to take care of other soldiers. In the military they teach us to have each other’s backs and, although my uniform is now a suit and tie, I am proud to work with this Congress to continue to have the backs of America’s service members and veterans.

IAVA welcomes and supports Executive Order No.13607, which will help empower student veterans to make educational choices that meet their needs. We believe that with proper implementation, this order will begin to provide veterans and their families with clarity about their educational choices. We also believe that this order complements several more robust legislative initiatives already under consideration in both the House and the Senate. By signing this executive order, the President has initiated a process that, if addressed by legislation alone, the various agencies would have to wait months to work on. We firmly believe that sound implementation of this executive order coupled with passage of bills offered by this committee and your counterpart in the Senate will provide timely clarity for student veterans about their educational choices. In addition, it will prevent consumers from falling pray to bad information and predatory practices in higher education.

Thoughtful implementation of this executive order will be the key to its success and the potential success of any forthcoming legislative initiatives. To achieve success, we must address two questions: 1) What are the outcomes that consumers need to make sound choices? 2) How will benefits and/or federal aid pay for the education that veterans and service members need?

For most students, chosing a school is not a data-driven process. This is largely due to the lack of usable consumer information available to prospective students. While schools are required to report a wide range of information to the Department of Education, there is no clear way to synthesize that information into a usable tool to empower consumers to make choices that fit their needs. The National Center for Education Statistics’ College Navigator is a tool that displays hundreds of data points. However, the information that is displayed is not clear, uniform or useful to consumers deciding where to spend their GI Bill dollars. Furthermore, an even cursory review of College Navigator exposes broad inconsistencies in the information reported to the Department of Education. For example, Patten College is a private nonprofit college in Oakland, CA. A review of their data from College Navigator shows an unremarkable demographic distribution of students (See tables below). However, when you look at graduation rates, the data indicates that of the 64% of students who graduate all are Asian females. Either there happens to be a strong cultural bias in the curriculum of Patten University, or the information on College Navigator is not displayed or reported in a usable manner. While this is an extreme example, inconsistencies like this are common when using College Navigator. It is clearly not designed to be a consumer education tool. Although I do not believe that this Executive Order will necessarily clean up bad reporting, it will expose schools that are reporting bad numbers and give consumers an indication that a school might not be entirely on the level.

IAVA is also concerned about the multiple reported abuses from the for-profit industry. Currently, there is no clear method to separate schools that provide quality programs from the ones that are only trying to profit from veterans’ benefits.

Several for-profit colleges are valued participants in higher education. They provide veterans with a service that is not widely available in traditional non-profit universities, including online and vocational programs that offer highly technical degrees that are largely unavailable at traditional non-profit, public and private colleges. Essentially, they give veterans and their families the flexibility to obtain the career-ready education required to be competitive in the workforce.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to separate the good actors from the bad actors in for-profit education. Many for-profit schools are excessively expensive, plagued with high drop out rates, and engage in very aggressive and sometimes deceptive marketing and recruiting practices targeted at veterans. By clearly displaying data on student success and engaging veterans with robust consumer education, we can separate the good schools from the bad actors and allow student veterans to make a more informed choices. While all for-profit schools are required to report gainful employment metrics, there is no uniform or usable way to synthesize that information for consumers. There are for-profit institutions like the East-West College of the Healing Arts (where my sister received an excellent education) that report student outcomes on their website in a full and useful manner (See table above). Their reporting is useful to prospective students, who want to understand how attending the school will affect their employment prospects after graduation. In contrast, finding data from the University of Phoenix is a laborious exercise in frustration. When using College Navigator to compare like programs at many of these institutions, the data often do not match up. This executive order does not solve all of the problems with the for-profit industry. However, coupled with legislation currently before Congress, it will help student veterans obtain the information they need to choose a quality degree that meets their needs.

Even if this executive order coupled with legislation fixes the errors and inconsistencies with student outcome data, we must tie that data to a tool that student veterans can use to determine what benefits or aid they are eligible for and how they may be used to help pay for their education. For our part, IAVA has developed and successfully produced and distributed a free GI Bill calculator for veterans at www.newgibill.org. This calculator remains the only comprehensive tool available for prospective student veterans to determine how to best use their Post-9/11 GI Bill. Nothing like this calculator currently exists from the VA or Department of Education. Identifying metrics students can use to choose a college is important, but these ultimately must be coupled with the ability to determine how they can use their benefits to help achieve their goals.

IAVA is also concerned with trademarking the phrase “GI Bill.” There is a clear problem with deceptive websites misusing the phrase GI Bill to mask marketing for services. Searching “GI Bill” on Google reveals pages of deceptive websites that are designed to market for-profit schools to prospective students without providing them useful information about their benefits. Veterans who submit their information to these websites are often subjected to aggressive recruiting and harassment. Trademarking a phrase like “GI Bill” will allow the government to restrict many of those deceptive practices. I am concerned, however, that there is no instruction in the executive order to protect websites like IAVA’s www.newgibill.org that provide students with critical information and assistance with their benefits that the government is unwilling or unable to provide. When implementing this order, there must be clearly defined exceptions. Almost a million veterans have used IAVA’s www.newgibill.org to calculate their benefits, gather information about changes to the GI Bill, and receive help in understanding this complex benefit. We must ensure that we are protecting veterans, not inadvertently restricting the ability for veterans to gain valuable information, especially when the DoD and VA are not yet providing it.

IAVA is also concerned about housing a consumer information tool in the eBenefits portal. eBenefits is a helpful tool for veterans to gain information about their DoD and VA services. But access to eBenefits remains a serious problem and continued improvement is necessary. Currently, access to eBenefits is tied to enrollment in the DoD’s DEERS system. While efforts to enroll separating service members in eBenefits during the Transition Assistance Programs (TAP) is an excellent step, a significant number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are no longer serving. For these veterans, access to eBenefits is far too complicated to be useful. Even if you develop the best consumer education tool in the world, it’s useless if consumers have trouble accessing it. To remedy this, IAVA recommends that, in addition to being housed at eBenefits, the consumer information tool must also be available at www.gibill.va.gov.

IAVA applauds the President’s directive to establish a consumer complaint system and wants to ensure that the system is effective. One of the biggest problems with the GI Bill is that there is currently no method for student veterans to report problems with their benefits or report fraud, waste, and abuse by their school. Judging by the amount of complaints I see regularly from our members submitted to IAVA’s www.newgibill.org, there is a clear need for the government to establish a basic customer service and complaint mechanism. For the program to be effective, the intake must be housed in the VA. All intakes must be integrated with 1-888-GIBILL-1 FREE and located at www.gibill.va.gov. The VA is the face of veterans’ services within the government. Housing this service anywhere else makes zero sense from a practical or business perspective.

Executive Order No.13607 will not solve all the problems faced by student veterans, however it is a good start. Congress must be vigilant in addressing many of the implementation issues that have been addressed here today. Additionally, Congress must continue its work to pass pending legislation such as H.R. 4057 (Bilirakis), H.R. 4052 (Stutzman) that will make many of the provisions of this Executive Order more robust and permanent.  Congress also must address several of the regulatory loopholes that are being exploited by many schools by passing H.R. 4055 (Speier), and H.R. 4390 (Grijalva). These bills will help restore free-market control to the for-profit school industry and will prevent veterans from being harassed by marketers and aggressive recruiters.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill is the most significant veterans’ benefit since World War II. With it, veterans and their families have the opportunity build a first class future and shape the destiny of the New Greatest Generation. As veterans, advocates, educators, and lawmakers we all have a shared responsibility to ensure that every student veteran is empowered to use their benefits wisely and build a first class future. This is why IAVA supports the President’s Executive Order No.13607 and looks forward to working with Congress to pass pending legislation on this issue.

Thank you for your time and attention.