The original GI Bill sent more than 2 million World War II veterans to college and is widely credited as a key element in the rapid growth of the American middle class. For every dollar invested in the World War II GI Bill, $7 were returned to the government and economy. But it also offers an important cautionary tale that federal policymakers would be wise to follow as the U.S. Department of Education this week seeks to undo decades of careful protections for veterans and requirements for schools.
The taxpayer investment in the GI Bill was significant, and the large pot of money attracted bad actors, too — largely “fly-by-night” correspondence schools that promised to provide flexible educational options, at a distance, to veterans. As major news media exposed at the time, what these “schools” really did was take veterans’ money and run, without having provided any education of any value — leading one major magazine to call it the “greatest boondoggle of all time.” A recent report from New Americarans enrolled in “home study” courses in the 1950s and 60s, many of which operated as “diploma mills” that offered almost no value.
Correspondence schools aggressively recruited veterans using predatory practices and misleading advertising, and provided poor-quality training. Despite the large numbers of veterans enrolling in these programs, only around one in 10 graduated. Some were outright frauds. One school offered lessons in starting your own correspondence school, and was even willing to establish coursework-by-mail in skydiving, for a price. Another correspondence school in television home repair provided a free TV to veterans, but nothing more.
Periodic crackdowns by Congress over the years have made it harder for unscrupulous providers to prey on veterans and waste taxpayer dollars. One important requirement was to ensure schools weren’t being paid to leave students to learn on their own. But this could soon change, as Education Secretary Betsy DeVosBetsy DeVosGOP lawmakers urge Cardona against executive student loan wipeout More insidious power grab than one attempted Jan. 6? Betsy DeVos not running for Michigan governor MORE embarks on an ambitious — and scary — effort to deregulate higher education and open the floodgates of hundreds of billions of dollars in federal aid to those who care more about making a quick buck than making sure students get what they’re paying for.
In a few weeks, DeVos’s team will begin a dull-sounding and technical process of redefining distance education to allow more “schools” to get access to federal money. DeVos plans to do this by undoing a common-sense requirement that requires schools to provide “regular and substantive interaction” between students and the instructor if they want full access to federal money. To do so will simply ignore the lessons our nation learned providing education benefits to millions of veterans.
This requirement was designed as a direct response to nearly 50 years of abuses by correspondence schools, beginning with the passage of the GI Bill. Over those decades, student veterans who were seeking flexibility in their education to balance work, family, and school were aggressively targeted for recruitment by correspondence schools — and wound up wasting their time, money and benefits in programs that left them to learn on their own.
Policymakers were right to require “regular and substantive interaction” between students and teachers, but now DeVos wants to remove key requirements and protections in the name of “innovation” such as teacherless correspondence schools, unaccountable for their students’ outcomes.
Without critical protections in place, students could wind up wasting their precious GI Bill dollars and Pell Grants, and taking on student debt, for an education that’s little more than a series of self-help YouTube videos. Taxpayers will pay full price for an education that’s self-taught. And students could leave the classroom with no learning and a mountain of debt. We’ve seen this play out before and don’t want to see it happen again. Our students, especially our student veterans, deserve better.
Tanya Ang is vice president of Veterans Education Success.
Clare McCann is deputy director for Federal Higher Education Policy at New America.