By Joseph Berkman-Breen
For-profit schools are defrauding student veterans in order to profit off their GI Bill education benefits, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)—in disregard of its legal obligations—continues to approve deceptive schools for the use of veterans’ benefits. As a result, thousands of veterans are thrown into financial distress for simply pursuing an education.
This past year alone, the VA paid approximately $5 billion to schools it approved for the use of GI Bill benefits. Veterans understandably believe the VA’s approval means it is safe for them to attend, but that is too often not the case. Ever since the advent of the GI Bill, fraudulent schools—almost always for-profit schools—have deceived veterans into enrolling in order to profit off their benefits. A 2012 U.S. Senate investigation uncovered documents that verified for-profit schools were targeting veterans for their benefits, and that schools engaged in deceptive practices to induce students to enroll, including deceiving veterans into falsely believing their GI Bill benefits would cover the cost of attendance.
As a result of targeted and deceptive advertising, a disproportionately high 30% of GI Bill beneficiaries attend for-profit schools, compared to 10% of all postsecondary students. In fact, eight of the ten schools that receive the most in GI Bill benefits are for-profit schools. Yet veterans at these schools often don’t receive the education they need to succeed and wind up losing years of time, exhausting their GI benefits, and taking out tens of thousands of dollars in loans, only to find they can’t get jobs in their field.
Take Miguel, an army combat engineer who was forced into medical retirement after he sustained a head trauma so severe that he developed epilepsy. Miguel sought to land on his feet by going back to school. An online search led him to Berkeley College, a for-profit school in New York, which boasted that it was one of the best schools in the country for veterans. Miguel shared his military record and information about his disability with the school, and a Berkeley College recruiter told Miguel that the GI Bill would cover the entire cost of attending, that his military experience would translate into credit towards his degree, and that with a Criminal Justice degree, he could become a police officer. Miguel enrolled in the hopes that becoming a police officer would give him another chance to serve.
However, Berkeley College was not what it seemed. The school did not give Miguel any credit for his military experience and his GI benefits did not cover the full tuition, so he had to take out more than $30,000 in student loans. Even worse, Miguel learned after he graduated that with his military experience, he didn’t even need a degree to join a police department, but also, devastatingly, he was told that his condition—which Berkeley knew about—prevented him from serving as a police officer. This left Miguel tens of thousands of dollars in debt and unable to get a job in his field. Berkeley sold Miguel a degree it knew he didn’t need and couldn’t use for one reason: it wanted his benefits.
Many veterans, like Miguel, who attend for-profit schools, believe they are making an informed decision about which school to attend and are reassured by the fact that the VA approved the school to receive their GI Bill benefits. And they should be right: the VA has an obligation to protect veterans from fraudulent schools. Federal law requires the VA to prohibit the use of GI Bill benefits at schools that engage in erroneous, deceptive or misleading enrollment practices. But what most veterans don’t know is that the VA does little to fulfill its obligation to protect them. In 2018 a VA Office of Inspector General audit of the GI Bill program found the VA was approving the use of benefits at numerous schools that engaged in deceptive advertising.
Berkeley College is a prime example of the problem. In 2018 the New York City Department of Consumer and Worker Protection sued Berkeley after the city agency documented numerous instances of unlawful deceptive practices by the school, similar to what Miguel experienced, including that the school had misled students about financial aid and deceived students about their likelihood of graduating or getting a job. In these situations, when the VA has reason to believe a school is misleading students, the law envisions that the VA will refer the school to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for investigation. But the VA never referred Berkeley and it still approves it to receive GI Bill benefits, allowing Berkeley to continue defrauding veterans.
As it turns out, the VA has almost never referred any school for investigation. The New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) recently received documents through an information request that confirm the VA has only ever referred two schools for such an investigation—and both referrals came so late that the schools closed due to fraud not long after the referrals were made.
There is a long list of examples where the VA failed to protect student veterans in the face of deceptive practices by schools, even as federal, state and local law enforcement agencies took action. For instance, in recent years the FTC and state attorneys general, among others, have taken action against DeVry University, Corinthian Colleges Inc., and Career Education Corporation (operator of Sanford-Brown Colleges and Institutes, Colorado Technical University, and InterContinental University), and yet the VA continued to allow veterans to use their GI Bill benefits to attend these schools.
How many veterans need to be harmed before the VA will start to fulfill its obligation to protect them? We at NYLAG call on Congress to investigate why the VA is failing to protect student veterans.
Volunteer attorney with the New York Legal Assistance Group, where he was formerly a fellow.