FORT STEWART, Ga.— Surrounded by thousands of uniformed members of the Army’s Third Infantry Division, President Obama Friday signed an executive order cracking down on for-profit colleges that prey on service members and veterans to collect tuition dollars without providing meaningful education in return.
Joined by wife Michelle Obama on a grassy parade field in front of the infantry division’s headquarters building on a sunny, warm Georgia day, Obama told soldiers that some for-profit schools swindle veterans, harassing them with repeated phone calls and e-mails and promising them job placement and counseling without delivering.
He told of one college recruiter, who visited a barracks at Camp Lejeune and signed up service members suffering from brain injuries.
“That’s appalling. That’s disgraceful. That should never happen in America,” he said.
The executive order, he said, will “make life a whole lot more secure for you and your families and our veterans and whole lot tougher for those who try to prey on you.”
The visit came as Obama concluded a week of courting young voters and their parents, touring university campuses to pressure Congress to pass a measure that would prevent student loan rates from doubling on July 1.
Obama spoke as the Republican-led House adopted a GOP-authored proposal to pay for lower student rates with money set aside for preventative care programs in the federal health-care overhaul. The White House has threatened a veto over the funding provision. An alternative measure in the Democratic-controlled Senate would pay for the extension by imposing new payroll taxes on some businesses with three or fewer shareholders
Obama has also been wooing the military in hopes of out-performing Democrats with the traditionally conservative group by highlighting his efforts to end combat action in Iraq and to support military families.
The executive order directs the Department of Veterans Affairs to trademark the term ”GI Bill,” to make it easier for the government to track down on for-profit groups that deceptively use the term to enroll veterans.
It will also require the 6,000 colleges that participate in the G.I. Bill to provide veterans a “Know Before You Owe” document that more transparently explains how much debt they will take on to complete their degree.
And it will make it easier for cheated service members to register their complaints and for institutions that have been subject to repeated allegations of abuse to be kept off military installations.
Legislation is pending on the same issue in Congress, but the executive order was designed to show that Obama will take action on issues when he can rather than wait for the gridlocked legislature to act.
The Washington Post Co. operates for-profit schools through its Kaplan subsidiary.
As Obama prepared to speak, the campaign of presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney released a statement focusing on high unemployment among veterans.
“Under President Obama, all Americans have suffered from one of the worst job markets in recorded history – and our nation’s veterans have been among the hardest hit,” said Romney spokesman Andrea Saul.
The president’s action was praised by veterans groups, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion and Student Veterans of America, a coalition of student veteran organizations on college campuses.
“This is an important victory of behalf of our young service members and veterans who, in seeking to better themselves educationally, have been wrongly and unconscionably victimized by some institutions who see America’s finest as nothing more than a vulnerable market,” American Legion National Commander Fang A. Wong said.
But Republican Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, called Obama’s action “an unnecessary attack on the free market,” saying it unfairly smeared the for-profit school system.
“There are already ample resources to police the bad actors in the education system,” Miller said in a statement, which noted that state agencies inspect schools as part of an approval process and that the Federal Trade Commission can enforce sanctions against false advertising.
And the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, which represents for-profit schools, called Obama’s action “deeply unfortunate,” saying that it was already in talks with veterans services organizations and members of Congress about addressing the concerns.
“APSCU is disappointed that in the midst of these discussions, the President decided to bypass the Congress to address these issues with an Executive Order,” Steve Gunderson, the organization’s president and a former Republican congressman from Wisconsin, said in a statement.
Military officials estimated 10,300 military personnel and family members were on hand to watch Obama sign the order.
Before arriving at the base, the presidential motorcade made an unscheduled stop at the Fort Stewart Warriors Walk, where 441 trees are planted in memory of every Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield soldier killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
There, the Obamas walked quietly, hand-in-hand, before kneeling in front of two trees and depositing a presidential coin and a folded American flag.