Veterans in the Crosshairs

The month of October has brought progress against abuses in for-profit higher education, particularly in regard to the sector’s treatment of military service members. Earlier this month, the Department of Defense announced that it would be suspending the University of Phoenix, one of the largest for-profit colleges in the United States, from recruiting on military bases and accessing federal education funding for service members. These sanctions have been enacted amid allegations that the University of Phoenix, during sponsored recruiting events at military bases, violated an executive order preventing for-profit colleges from gaining preferential access to the military, but the parties were barred from discussing the specifics of the case further.

In a responding statement, the University of Phoenix claimed, “The University — and the work of its employees — always strives to meet the high standards of integrity, ethics, and conduct required of all who work with service members, veterans, and military families.” Investigations filed through several federal entities, including the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP), and the Government Accountability Office (GAO), reveal that the for-profit higher education sector — the University of Phoenix included — has blatantly acted contrary to the preceding statement made by the University of Phoenix.

As I outline in my forthcoming book, Degrees of Deception: America’s For-Profit Higher Education Fraud, the for-profit higher education sector is motivated to target military service members for three distinct reasons: (1) increased military engagements in the Middle East over the last decade have caused a surge in persons eligible for military education benefits, (2) many of these benefits come in the form of grants, rather than loans, which pose less of a default risk to the colleges, and (3) military education benefits are exempt from a cap on Title IV benefits under the Higher Education Act’s “90/10 Rule,” increasing the total proportion of federal funding that is channeled to for-profit colleges.

Due to the significant financial gains that veterans offer for-profit colleges as a result of their military status, the for-profit higher education sector has committed a significant number of resources to targeted recruitment in this area. Such efforts include Kaplan University’s plan to “spend $29 million and hire 45 people over 3 years to enroll more military personnel,” as a way to infiltrate “key military publications and installations … and establish broad-based outreach through phone calls, Web sites, direct-mail, and a presence at military events” (Page 68).

By applying a series of predatory recruitment practices, including soliciting the business of independent lead generators that pose as government agencies (Page 68), for-profit colleges across the country have been able to lure millions of military service members into signing onto their institutions. Overall, for-profit colleges have been successful in this campaign, in that eight of the top ten recipients of post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits were for-profit colleges — the University of Phoenix’s holding company, Apollo Group, coming in first at $210 million between 2009 and 2011 (Page 137). Internal documents from Bridgepoint Education, Inc., for example, explain, “We’ve had a lot of success in that our military enrollment grew from 1% in 2007 to 17% [in] September 2009” (Page 147).

Although the statistics and general practices are enough to contradict the University of Phoenix’s claim that it “strives to meet the high standards of integrity, ethics, and conduct required of all who work with service members, veterans and military families,” the following story of US Army Staff Sargent Jon Elliot characterizes what happens to many veterans and their families once they have been hooked by the system.

Upon his return home from Iraq, Sgt. Elliot decided to invest in an education at ATI Career Center in Texas. Painfully recounting his story, Sgt. Elliot explained in his testimony to the Senate HELP Committee, “I was assured over the phone that . . . they had been accepted back in April for the Post-9/11 program. I went in, did a face-to-face with a recruitment official. Once again I asked, ‘Are you sure we’re good for the Post-9/11?’ He said, ‘Yes,’ and we started doing some paperwork” (Page 70).

To Sgt. Elliot’s dismay, he was notified three months later by the Department of Veterans Affairs that ATI “was not an authorized institution of higher education, and no benefits would be paid” (Page 70). Unfortunately, Sgt. Elliot could not afford to pay the tuition without using his benefits, dropped out of school, and was subsequently pursued by ATI for the $9,600 that he had been told the GI Bill would pay for.

In response to countless stories like that of Sgt. Elliot, Ms. Hollister Petraeus, head of the Office of Servicemember Affairs at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, has spoken out against for-profit colleges. In a 2011 New York Times Op-Ed, she simply states that for-profit colleges “do a disservice to veterans and taxpayers alike.” Although I am in general agreement with her, I believe that for-profit colleges are guilty of far more than doing a disservice to taxpayers and its student victims, veterans, and their families most of all.

Upon their return home, veterans and their families fail to realize that the homefront for them is no safer than the frontlines abroad. Although their enemies on the homefront do not carry assault rifles, they come armed with false promises of a better life and a pen to sign away their hopes for future prosperity. It is no overstatement to say that the for-profit higher education sector has launched an all-out assault on veterans and their families in a campaign for wealth. For-profit colleges mercilessly seek higher profit margins on the backs of those they claim to serve.

As a nation, we owe more to Sgt. Elliot and the countless other student victims like him. They have done their duty to protect our security and way of life. It is time for us to honor the sacrifice of our veterans and pay back our debt to them by ensuring that they return home from battle to a safe environment — free of the war that is being waged by for-profit colleges today. Although these temporary sanctions against the University of Phoenix are a good start, they are wholly inadequate. While the University of Phoenix has been subdued for the time being, other industry giants, ranging from Kaplan Higher Education, Inc. to ITT Educational Services, Inc., continue to wage their industry-wide war on the American people, worst of all on our veterans. The damage that the industry has done to its student victims and taxpayers alike demands far more than the minimal sanctions that were implemented this October. Firm and immediate action, which I outline in my forthcoming book, falls nothing short of eliminating the for-profit higher education sector altogether. It is time to end this war on our home front once and for all.

Cover Photo:
ITT, one of the leading for-profit colleges. Source: http://bit.ly/1RUH13t.

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