Soldiers, veterans and civilians carry a U.S. flag as they march in the Veterans Day Parade on Nov. 11, 2017, in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Reporter

This is not a subject on which I have published on in the past, but it is important: American veterans going back to school with their GI Bill benefits without getting defrauded.

In this piece, Mike Saunders, director of military and consumer policy at the advocacy group Veterans Education Success, provides detailed help and explains the system that allows veterans to still get cheated.

Veterans Education Success is an organization that works to help veterans, service members and military families go to college successfully, and to protect federal education programs, including the GI Bill.

The GI Bill, formally known as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, provides a range of benefits to veterans.

By Mike Saunders

Transitioning out of the military is a stressful time for any service member. When you are on active duty, it seems like there is a resource for any questions you might have, but when you leave, you need to find the answers to your questions on your own.

Whether you are trying to navigate Veterans Affairs, going back to school or going to work for a civilian employer, you have to immediately know what questions to ask, and where to go to find answers.

When it comes to using your federal education benefits, you need to have a plan: not only regarding what you want to do when you graduate, but also what you should avoid. This involves doing research before you decide where to go to school. It is absolutely crucial to take this step, because you get only one chance at correctly using your education benefits like the GI Bill.

Unfortunately, some schools have been found to lie to veterans because they want the GI Bill. They’ve lied about your job prospects, whether you can transfer credits, and whether the GI Bill will cover all the cost of attending.

Accrediting agencies, state governments and the federal government each issue their own uncoordinated set of requirements governing the calculation and provision of employment metrics, making meaningful comparison across programs and colleges nearly impossible for experts, let alone students.

Worse, the Department of Education has removed the “threshold earning rate” from the College Scorecard, which measured the share of former students who received federal financial aid who earned at least $28,000 six years after entering college. It is also eliminating requirements that colleges share job placement rates and financial stability rates with prospective students.

How can you navigate this?

Don’t Believe Everything You Hear

If a school sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Beware of guarantees and promises about your likely job success and how little it will cost you.

Talk to Employers

One way around these roadblocks is to talk to professionals in the field you want to work in. They can give you insight into whether the school you’re considering will help you to work in the field after graduation. They can also alert you to whether a school recruiter’s job placement claims are realistic or not.

Check on License Requirements

Be sure to find out what kind of licensing requirements the job you’re seeking requires as well, and ask the licensing authority if your school qualifies. Some schools lie about whether their graduates are eligible for state licensing exams. Be sure to check with the state licensing board.

Pay Attention to Accreditation

Ensuring that a school is properly accredited is another way of protecting your investment. “Regional accreditation,” while sounding less prestigious than “national accreditation,” is actually the gold standard. Many colleges won’t accept credits from “nationally accredited” schools. Proper accreditation is a way of ensuring quality and also that your credits will transfer to other reputable schools.

Call Your State University

Some schools will try to hide the fact that no legitimate schools will accept their credits. Before you enroll, call around to see if the large public university in your state will accept transfer credits from the school you are thinking of attending. If the credits won’t transfer, that’s another red flag that you should look elsewhere.

Research the Tuition & Fees — Carefully

Another red flag is the fact that some schools will hide the true cost of tuition and fees from you before you enroll. Public schools are required to give GI Bill beneficiaries in-state tuition rates, under certain circumstances (particularly if you served recently) that are fully covered by the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Private colleges are often more expensive. The key is to find out the true cost.

The Yellow Ribbon program at Veterans Affairs can also help. You may elect to participate in the Yellow Ribbon program to make additional funds available for your education program without an additional charge to your GI Bill entitlement. The Yellow Ribbon program can cover your unmet tuition and fees after considering any scholarships or financial aid you receive. Check out the Yellow Ribbon website for more information.

And some of the most elite nonprofit colleges (including in the Ivy League) are eager for veterans to enroll and can offer generous financial aid packages.

Some colleges promise veterans that the GI Bill will cover the full cost of attending their school when that is not, in fact, the truth. That’s what happened to one veteran who testified recently before Congress.

Don’t Sign Anything You Don’t Understand

One way that schools get away with this is by slipping a “Master Promissory Note” (MPN) into the forms that require a signature when enrolling. An MPN is a legally binding instrument that allows the college to take out federal student loans in your name. It allows colleges to take out loans in your name for a decade! Many veterans signed this after being told they would have no loans, and found out years later they have lots of loans they have to repay.

My organization, Veterans Education Success, has received reports from veterans alleging schools forging students’ signatures to take out loans without their knowledge.

Get Everything in Writing

Remember to get all promises that a school makes to you in writing. If a school won’t put their promises in writing, then the promises are worthless. Some school recruiters are under pressure to get you to enroll, so they’re tempted to exaggerate or even lie in person, but make them put it in writing.

Get a signed document about the true cost.

Check the GI Bill Comparison Tool or TA Decide

The GI Bill Comparison Tool provides helpful consumer data about how much you can expect to pay in tuition and fees, what types of veteran programs are available, what types of outcomes students have after attending the school, and what types of complaints students who attend the school have had.

If you look at the number of reported complaints by students in the GI Bill Comparison Tool or the Department of Defense’s TA Decide Tool, you can see right away which schools have lots of complaints and why to be wary of enrolling.

Why Would Colleges Lie to Veterans?

Schools that over-promise and under-deliver to students sometimes engage in illegal, predatory behavior. Many of them are being sued by law enforcement. Search to learn if your college has been sued by the feds or a state for defrauding students. Our website keeps a running list of law enforcement actions against schools here.

Such fraud is enabled by high-pressure sales tactics that prioritize fast enrollment and emotional manipulation over a properly deliberative process that weighs all factors before deciding on whether to enroll in a school. Don’t believe claims like you need to enroll right away or you won’t get a spot. Reputable schools do not use high-pressure sales tactics to get you to attend their institution.

Bad-actor schools use these types of tactics because they work. The incentives are to enroll as many veterans into the classroom as possible because of something called the “90/10 loophole.”

This is a policy that requires private, for-profit schools to receive no more than 90 percent of their money from federal sources, except for one small caveat: Department of Defense Tuition Assistance (TA) money and Department of Veterans Affairs GI Bill money does not count toward that cap.

This means that for every veteran or service member enrolled in a for-profit school, that school can enroll nine more students who are using federal Title IV loan money. It’s a system that the military and veteran community is fighting to stop in Congress this year.

Lastly, if you need support, then learn about the resources we offer and contact us for free help to identify a school. If you follow these steps and avoid aggressive, high-pressure sales tactics, you can protect your military education benefits, and your investment in your future.