Last month, the U.S. Department of Defense took the unprecedented step of putting the University of Phoenix on probation, forbidding it from enrolling service members as new students and banning it from recruiting on military bases. Veterans and military service organizations, along with student and consumer advocates, praised the move as “prudent” in light of evidence of significant deceptive recruiting by the for-profit company.  The Defense Department concluded that “the frequency and scope” of the company’s violations was “disconcerting.” 

It’s about time the federal government stepped up to protect service members and veterans from such deceptive recruiting by for-profit colleges. Although federal and state law enforcement have started to sue for-profit colleges for deceiving low income students, little has been done to stop the predatory recruiting of service members and veterans. Why are veterans singled out? Through a legal but strange accounting gimmick, the GI Bill and military tuition assistance can be exempted from a cap on the amount of federal student aid these for-profit schools can receive.

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This isn’t how it was supposed to be.  Passed after World War II, the GI Bill was transformative for our nation and largely credited with building the middle class in this country. The legislation not only helped our returning soldiers assimilate into civilian life but also provided unprecedented access to higher education, which at the time was a privilege reserved for the rich. College degrees yielded gainful employment and homeownership, enabling our veterans to live comfortably and send their own children to college.

The Post 9/11 GI Bill was introduced with similar expectations. Since it’s passage in 2008, hundreds of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans have used their federal education benefits for college degrees or technical training certificates at schools across the country. This time, however, too many veterans aren’t getting jobs upon graduation. And they’re certainly not buying homes because so many are buried in student loan debt.

While veterans saw the GI Bill as an opportunity for higher education, for-profit colleges saw them as an easy revenue stream. In the last school year, for-profit schools collected $2.032 billion in Post-9/11 G.I. Bill tuition payments from the taxpayer-funded Department of Veterans Affairs.

Many of these schools branded themselves as “military friendly,” and began aggressively targeting veterans and service members with deceptive marketing and recruiting practices, often right on their bases. The for-profits typically promise a quality education and “guaranteed jobs,” neither of which is delivered. Since many of these colleges, or their degree programs, are not properly accredited, students are not qualified to work in the fields in which they have studied. Instead, student vets exhaust their GI Bill benefits and build mountains of student loan debt, while receiving non-transferable credits, worthless degrees or no degrees at all.

For several years, federal and state officials have been chipping away at this fraudulent system, one school at a time, forcing several to close or go into bankruptcy.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Education enacted new rules that would deny federal dollars to schools that had low rates of graduates who found jobs in their fields of study (whether public, non-profit or for-profit). To date, 37 state attorneys general have launched investigations and scores for-profit colleges are facing lawsuits for unscrupulous business practices, including their inadequate disclosures around accreditation.

While the Defense Department took steps to stop the deceptive practices of one of the biggest offenders when it stripped University of Phoenix’s approval to enroll additional service members, the VA has done nothing.

It’s time for the VA to act and provide stronger consumer protection measures for veterans. Congress too needs to pay attention to the fraud that some for-profit schools engage in, the very illegal activity that law enforcement is cracking down on. Protecting veterans hard earned benefits from bad actors should be a bipartisan endeavor, not a responsibility that Congress abdicates to law enforcement. 

It would be a disservice both to veterans’ military service and to taxpayers’ investment in their post-military careers not to provide basic protections. Our veterans and service members deserve no less.

Boulay is the executive director of the Veterans’ Student Loan Relief Fund and an Iraq War veteran.