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How to stop for-profit colleges from preying on veterans | COMMENTARY

Congressional legislation seeks to close a loophole that leads for-profit colleges to prey on veterans.
Congressional legislation seeks to close a loophole that leads for-profit colleges to prey on veterans.(John Amis / AP)

Politicians love to talk about “supporting the troops,” but too often fail to follow through on promises after securing a round of positive headlines.

Just look at the obstacles faced by soldiers and veterans when they try to pursue college degrees. When it comes to higher education, service members and veterans face red tape and unnecessary roadblocks, while predatory colleges are rewarded.

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In recent weeks, however, there is rare bipartisan momentum to close a funding loophole and stop sham schools from targeting veterans. Congress and the Trump administration should move quickly to show America’s troops and veterans that our leaders are willing to put action before talk.

Since its inception in 1944, the GI Bill has helped countless service members and veterans afford a college degree. However, in recent years an unintended quirk of federal law has perversely incentivized the worst colleges to target military students. The so-called 90/10 Rule at the U.S. Department of Education sets a 90% cap on the revenue for-profit schools can get from federal financial aid, a limit intended to weed out low-quality schools that can survive only on the government’s dime.

That limit inadvertently failed to include GI Bill and Department of Defense funds, so each additional dollar from a veteran or service member’s benefits makes a school eligible for nine more dollars from the education department. The end result is that veterans and their family members — including, shockingly, widowed spouses attending grief support groups — are subject to unrelenting and deceptive recruitment efforts by predatory schools, all unwittingly financed by our own government.

Now, for the first time in more than two decades, powerful lawmakers in both parties appear ready to remove the target from veterans’ backs.

Republican Lamar Alexander, chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has backed a bipartisan bill to close the loophole that excludes GI Bill and defense department funds from the calculation and punish schools that break the rules. Congress should move now to pass that bill, and they should build on the momentum with additional measures to support veteran and service member students, including making it easier for service members to apply for student loan forgiveness.

Over 200,000 active duty service members have student loan debt, making them candidates for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. That’s a program that grants loan forgiveness to government workers after 10 years of public service — including military service. Both the Navy and Pentagon say loan forgiveness is an important recruitment and retention tool. However, less than one percent of applicants for loan forgiveness relief have been approved, partly due to the need to fill out forms to verify employment history, which is required even of those serving in our armed forces.

It makes no sense that active duty military members have to jump through hoops to prove their service when the Department of Education already has access to an existing database of everyone currently serving in the armed forces. These men and women have a lot on their plates already, and the department should immediately match those records and ensure that every eligible service member is getting credit toward their 10 years of service.

Active duty service members serving in hostile war zones are also appropriately entitled to a 0% interest rate on their federal student loans. Indeed, our armed forces are protected by several student loan rights — but all of them currently require service members to call home from Iraq, Afghanistan, or wherever they are stationed, to ask their family members to find their student loan documents and help them fill out paperwork overseas.

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Our Armed Forces should focus on the military mission, not red tape to get their basic rights. The defense department or Congress could make service members’ loan rights automatic, rather than asking them to fill out paperwork, as military and veterans organizations have been requesting.

We ask a lot of our military. We should hold the programs that support them to the same high standards.

Retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark (wes@wesleykclark.com) is a former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Carrie Wofford (carrie@vetsedsuccess.org) is the president of Veterans Education Success, and Aaron Ament (aaron@defendstudents.org) is the president of Student Defense.

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