For-profit college debate highlights VA's problematic history of paternalism

For-profit college debate highlights VA's problematic history of paternalism
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When discussing veterans’ issues, an inherent paradox emerges in how we view those who have served our country. 

On the one hand, we praise our veterans as mission-oriented leaders who know how to work hard and solve problems. We encourage employers to hire veterans for the many positive contributions they can bring to the workforce, such as their propensity for teamwork and the ability to perform in high-stress situations. Similarly, we encourage them to run for public office touting their commitment to public service and the ability to prioritize country over party.

However, on the other, veterans are often stereotyped as victims. Based on media coverage, there is also a perception that nearly all veterans suffer from PTSD or are on the brink of homelessness or suicide. While these issues are serious for those they do impact — they do not apply to a majority of veterans.

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The latter concept is most apparent in the veteran's benefits arena, which has long been characterized as “paternalistic,” meaning that, by law and regulation, VA’s systems are designed to be protective of veterans and nonadversarial. With benefits, we most often see paternalism concerning representation — Civil War-era rules remain to prevent veterans from hiring attorneys, referred to at the time of the law’s passage as “predatory” and “unscrupulous.”

Evidence of paternalism is evident in other aspects of the VA system as well, recently seen in health care debates about whether veterans should be allowed to choose their health care provider outside the VA system, or whether they need to be protected from dishonest contractors trying to make a quick buck.

And, most recently, this debate has emerged in the conversation around veterans attendance at for-profit colleges. Do veterans need to be protected from these institutions, or should we trust that their service has prepared them to make appropriate decisions about their future? 

For example, Eric Luongo, a Navy veteran, testified before Congress last year that the for-profit school he attended, DeVry University, left him with over $100,000 in student loan debt and a degree that employers did not take seriously.

“I never thought that I would be subject to the predatory acts that I experienced at DeVry,” he told a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, “I trusted that the people working within the educational system had my best interest in mind.”

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At the same hearing, Marc Jerome, president of for-profit Monroe College, testified that “accountability and consumer protection should be extended to all institutions and all students.”

By way of background, last year, the Federal Trade Commission penalized several colleges for deceptive advertising targeting veterans. In response, VA blocked several schools, including the University of Phoenix, Perdoceo Education Corp., Bellevue University, and Temple University from enrolling students utilizing the GI Bill, because of federal law —  38 U.S.C. 3696 — specifically forbids VA from allowing GI Bill funding to go to schools that utilize deceptive or misleading advertising, sales, or enrollment practices. 

The move was praised by many veterans service organizations, many of whom expressed concerns that for-profit schools have low completion rates, high default rates, and also target veterans due to what is called the 90/10 loophole, a federal law that does not include the GI Bill as federal funding for purposes of calculating a school’s required 10 percent of non-federal funding.  

However, this past week, the Trump administration announced that the schools had undertaken “adequate corrective measures” and could once again enroll GI bill students. 

In addressing where to go from here on the usage of GI Bill benefits, the answer is not as simple as tapping into VA’s paternalistic history and protecting veterans from for-profit colleges. Rather, we must also work to increase transparency around all college recruiting and empower veterans to spot predatory recruiting tactics.

First, of the four schools recently penalized by VA, it is important to note that two are non-profit institutions. Therefore, the problem of schools using deceptive practices to target veterans does extend beyond attendance at for-profit colleges, and labeling the problem as solely one that pertains to for-profit colleges potentially misses the mark. 

Importantly, an organization’s tax status alone does not determine its business plan, ethics, or outcomes. There is ample evidence of non-profit institutions, particularly in the veteran's space, that have spent donations on personal use and to benefit themselves rather than the veterans they are supposed to serve. 

If the ultimate aim is for veterans to use their GI Bill benefits to obtain a degree that leads to promising employment outcomes, the focus should be on the transparency of outcomes and elimination of deceptive advertising for all schools. 

Second, terminology matters. Although recent headlines have focused solely on for-profit schools, some veterans service organizations have recently used the more encompassing term “predatory schools,” which is more accurate. 

Finally, in legislating veterans' policy, including utilization of GI Bill benefits, we must also decide whether historical paternalism has a role in future decision-making. With the field of public health growing beyond just the interest of veterans, researchers have struggled to identify the sound justification for paternalistic interventions that override individual autonomy to prevent people from adopting unhealthy or otherwise unhelpful behaviors. 

As Justice Brandeis once stated, “The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.” 

Certainly, those pointing fingers at for-profit colleges for deceptively targeting veterans are well-meaning; but a greater understanding reflects that predatory recruiting practices targeting veterans extend beyond a simple tax-designation.

Rory E. Riley-Topping served as a litigation staff attorney for the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP), where she represented veterans and their survivors before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. She also served as the staff director and counsel for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs for former Chairman Jeff MillerJefferson (Jeff) Bingham MillerIt's time to focus on the needs of minority veterans Over 500 clients hired Trump-connected lobbyists so far in 2020 It's time for VA to consider a new motto MORE (R-Fla.). You can find her on Twitter: @RileyTopping.