Chairmen Carper and Harkin Commend Defense Department for Improving Transition Assistance Program

WASHINGTON- Today, Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.), Chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, and Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, commended the Department of Defense (DOD) for taking key steps to improve a program designed to prepare servicemembers and veterans with information and provide resources on how to best use their GI Bill benefits. The Department’s actions to reform the program was made in response to a January 13, 2014 letter sent by Chairmen Carper and Harkin urging the Department to take measures to improve the usefulness and accuracy of information in the “Accessing Higher Education Track” of the Department’s Transition Assistance Program for service members who are leaving active duty and pursuing higher education.

The DOD’s response indicated that it is taking some immediate steps to remove inaccurate information from the course and to update outdated information.  DOD also pledged to work with the subject matter experts at the Department of Education to revamp the course. 

“As I often say, the road to improvement is always under construction,” said Chairman Carper. “I commend the Department of Defense for recognizing the issues Senator Harkin and I raised and for their pledge to work with other agencies to make the Transition Assistance Program as beneficial as it can be for our returning servicemembers and veterans.  Our service men and women deserve the best from their country, and I will continue to work with the Department of Defense in support of its commitment to helping our troops and veterans achieve their higher education goals.”

“Higher education, in particular the DOD’s Transition Assistance Program, is a key part of helping our servicemembers make the transition to civilian life, and our government must make sure that they receive accurate information about the options available to them through the GI Bill,” said Chairman Harkin. “I am pleased that the Department of Defense has committed to taking steps to improve the Transition Assistance Program, and to working with Chairman Carper and me to ensure that our servicemembers can successfully pursue higher education after honorably serving our country in the military.”

A copy of the January 13, 2014 letter from Chairmen Carper and Harkin follows:

January 13, 2014

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