Chairmen Harkin, Carper Urge DOD to Address Shortfalls in Higher Education Program for Servicemembers

WASHINGTON- Today, Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Carper (D-DE) wrote to the Department of Defense (DOD) requesting that it take steps to address inaccuracies and information gaps in the “higher education” portion of its Transition Assistance Program. This portion of the Transition Assistance Program is intended to give departing service members the skills and knowledge needed to (1) select an institution of higher education that meets their career goals, and (2) navigate the complexities of using their G.I. Bill benefits and federal student aid to finance their postsecondary education.

“Helping our brave servicemembers make the transition to civilian life – especially opening the doors to higher education – is one of the most important ways we can thank them for their service and sacrifice,” said Chairman Harkin. “The ‘Accessing Higher Education Track’ is a step in the right direction, but is in need of critical improvements before it can fulfill its mission of helping returning servicemembers understand the options available to them to obtain a college degree.  After finding the information provided by the program to be both incomplete and unhelpful, I joined Senator Carper in calling on the Department of Defense to review our recommendations and make the changes necessary to ensure the program helps servicemembers, to whom we owe a great debt, successfully transition to civilian life and achieve their higher education and career goals.”

“I attended the Ohio State University and helped pay for college with an ROTC scholarship,” said Chairman Carper. “After serving as a Naval flight officer in South East Asia during the Vietnam War, I returned home and was fortunate enough to pursue my MBA at the University of Delaware with the help of the G.I. Bill. Today, more service members and veterans than ever are taking the same path I did and pursuing their educational goals with the help of the G.I. Bill and other federal student aid programs. That’s why I was troubled to find that the very program created to provide the guidance our military men and women need to fully take advantage of these benefits and transition successfully back to civilian life is both confusing and contains questionable information. This is not only a disservice to our veterans and service members, to whom we owe so much, but it is also a disservice to the tax payers that trust our government to spend their money responsibly. I often like to say that in adversity lies opportunity, and this is clearly an opportunity to revisit this program and find a way to provide veterans and service members with the quality information they deserve that will help them make informed decisions about their educational pursuits. I hope the Department of Defense will work with me, Chairman Harkin and our colleagues to reform this critical program to benefit our military men and women.”

In August 2011, President Obama directed DOD, Veterans Affairs (VA), and the Education Department (ED) to design a “reverse boot camp” —a program to help make the transition back to civilian life easier for our veterans, known as the Transition Assistance Program. Committee staff reviewed a video from the program’s education portion and found inaccuracies in its descriptions of the VA funded GI Bill benefit and the information provided on school accreditation and costs. Moreover, the Committee found that the education portion offered too little information to help service members and veterans make an informed decision about what degree to pursue or school to attend. Further exacerbating the shortcomings of the education class is the fact that service members can skip the course if they do not have immediate plans to go back to school.

Since 2009, about one million veterans have used their GI Bill benefits and received federal student aid after transitioning back to civilian life, but missed  the opportunity to receive impartial information to help guide their decisions. In their letter, Chairmen Harkin and Carper asked DOD to identify ways to significantly increase participation, given the large number of veterans who ultimately pursue higher education.

The full text of the letter follows:

January 13, 2013

The Honorable Jessica L. Wright

Acting Under Secretary of Defense

  for Personnel and Readiness

The Pentagon

Washington, D.C.

Dear Ms. Wright:

We are writing to raise several questions about aspects of the “Accessing Higher Education Track” of the Department’s Transition Assistance Program, a class that our staffs recently viewed on DVD.

In August 2011, President Obama directed the Departments of Defense (DOD), Veterans Affairs (VA), and Education (ED) to design a “reverse boot camp” to help make the transition back to civilian life easier for our veterans. DOD rolled out a revamped program in October 2012; it consists of a core curriculum that every departing servicemember must take, including financial planning, a Department of Labor employment workshop, briefings on veterans’ benefits, and the development of an individual transition plan. If servicemembers plan to pursue a postsecondary education, they are required to attend the accessing higher education class.

Our review of a DVD of the education class identified two types of problems—inaccurate information and information that we believe will not sufficiently prepare servicemembers for the many choices they will have to make in pursuing a postsecondary education.

Inaccurate Information

•Post-9/11 GI Bill. The DVD incorrectly states that the tuition paid to a private institution under the Post-9/11 GI Bill is based on the most expensive in-state tuition at a public school.  In fact, this policy was changed almost 3-years ago in the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Improvement Act of 2010.  Private institutions—either for-profit or non-profit—are now paid up to a national yearly maximum, which is adjusted annually for inflation. The cap for the 2013-2014 school year is $19,198.

•Accreditation: The DVD asserts that “very few employers will question the name of the college you attended, let alone its accreditation status” but offers no support for this statement. As the Council for Higher Education Accreditation points out, some prospective employers do consider an applicant’s school and its accreditation when evaluating the credentials of prospective employees.

•Cost: The course implies that tuition at not-for-profit and for-profit schools are similar, but later in the presentation contradicts this statement by noting that “state schools are an inexpensive local option for many students.”

Insufficient Information

•Types of institutions of higher education. The DVD provides insufficient information on the similarities and differences among for-profit, public, and private non-profit institutions of higher education. At a minimum, the metrics covered should address average costs, including information on in-state tuition charges; admission policies; credit for qualifying military training; time required to complete a degree; the option of associates degrees, offered by both for-profit schools and community colleges; the availability of blended programs that combine classroom and on-line learning; retention and job placement rates; transferability of credits; graduates’ debt levels; and other topics relevant to helping servicemembers make informed choices. These metrics are consistent with the President’s Principals of Excellence initiative, but most are not addressed in the DVD.

•Accreditation. The DVD spends considerable time discussing national versus regional accreditation, a major difference between for-profit and non-profit schools.  Despite the considerable attention focused on accreditation, a few important facts are lost in all the details. First, all schools must be accredited in order to participate in federal financial aid. Second, for-profit and non-profit schools often use different accrediting organizations. The result is that students attending for-profit schools can generally transfer credits to other for-profit schools but not to a public or non-profit private institution, and both public and private schools often refuse to accept transfer credits. In addition, the DVD does not address the issue that certain professions, such as nursing, may require state licensing or recognition by other certifying entities.

•Federal Student Aid.  The DVD shows an outdated version of ED’s “Financial Aid Shopping Sheet,” not the version that was revised to incorporate servicemember educational benefits. Because such benefits are the primary way servicemembers pay for school, it is important for them to use the revised tool when comparing costs and financial aid across schools.

•College Navigator. The DVD includes a helpful tour of ED’s on-line tool that allows prospective students to compare schools across 12 dimensions. However, the information for a single school across all 12 dimensions can total 15 to 20 pages. The DVD does not point out that the Navigator allows the user to view less detailed summary data or that ED’s College Scorecard, a slimmed-down version of the Navigator, also provides more easily digestible data.

In addition to these specific shortcomings, we believe that there is a more systemic problem with the education class: It does not help veterans to understand the relationship between their GI Bill benefits and federal student aid. The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 prohibits schools from considering GI Bill benefits when determining a veterans’ estimated financial assistance. As a result, some veterans could be eligible for federal grants and loans covering up to the full cost of attendance (as defined under the Higher Education Act) as well as their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits. This requirement was intended to preserve veteran’s eligibility to receive federal student aid, but the unintended consequence may be that it encourages them to incur unnecessary debt. According to several higher education associations, many schools are concerned about veterans borrowing to cover costs that could be paid for with their VA benefits and about veterans’ indebtedness and ability to pay back the loans.  Developing an understanding of how to coordinate these two funding streams before veterans enroll at a postsecondary institution is critical to their ability to navigate the complexities of financing their education.

Understandably, most servicemembers are eager to return home and opt to take time off to think about their career plans. As a result, few servicemembers are participating in the education class. However, a large number of veterans ultimately decide to go back to school—about 1 million have used the VA educational benefit through 2013. According to the Government Accountability Office, this number is expected to increase as the cohort of Post-9/11 veterans grows to over 5 million by 2020.

Given the importance of education in helping veterans successfully transition to civilian life, we believe that a top priority of the department should be to (1) improve the accuracy and utility of the information provided during the education class, (2) ensure that servicemembers understand how their benefits can work together to help them achieve their career goals, (3) identify ways to significantly increase the number of departing servicemembers who participate in the education class, and (4) propose ways to reach the many veterans who never had the opportunity to participate in the revamped class, such as through on-line webinars. We look forward to hearing about your plans to address these shortcomings in the Transition Assistance program’s education class, including an implementation timeline. Please respond within 30 days of receiving this letter. We are copying the Department of Education and the Department of Veterans Affairs because of the role they played in developing the revamped program.

Sincerely yours,

Tom Carper                                    

Tom Harkin

cc: Department of Education, Acting Under Secretary, Jamie Studley,

Department of Veterans Affairs, Deputy Under Secretary, Office of Economic Opportunity, Curtis L. Coy