The offer to military veterans left unemployed by the coronavirus pandemic was tantalizing: A year of online courses courtesy of the federal government. Graduates would be set up for good jobs in high-demand fields from app development to graphic design.
“I jumped at it,” said Jacqueline Culbreth, 61, an Air Force veteran laid off in 2020 from her job as a construction estimator in Orlando. “I was looking forward basically to upping my earning power.”
But more than a year after enrolling at the Chicago-based Future Tech Career Institute, Culbreth is no closer to her goal of landing a job in cloud computing. Like many former service members enrolled at the for-profit trade school under a pandemic relief program run by the Department of Veterans Affairs, she soon found herself immersed in discouraging chaos.
Schedules were disorganized and courses did not follow a set syllabus. School-provided laptops couldn’t run critical software. And during long stretches of scheduled class time, students were left without instruction, according to interviews with Culbreth and10other veterans who attended the school.
The Covid Money Trail
It was the largest burst of emergency spending in U.S. history: Two years, six laws and more than $5 trillion intended to break the deadly grip of the coronavirus pandemic. The money spared the U.S. economy from ruin and put vaccines into millions of arms, but it also invited unprecedented levels of fraud, abuse and opportunism.
In a yearlong investigation, The Washington Post is following the covid money trail to figure out what happened to all that cash.
In February, VA cut off tuition payments to Future Tech, leaving Culbreth and more than 300 other veterans in the lurch.
The disarray at Future Tech is the most painful example of broader problems with the $386 million Veteran Rapid Retraining Assistance Program, or VRRAP. Many schools proved unable to attract students or deliver promised services. In addition to Future Tech, nearly 90 schools have had their approvals yanked, according to VA officials, including several that were actively serving about 100 veterans. Some schools were cut off amid allegations of predatory practices, while others simply went out of business.
As of Aug. 1, only about 6,800 veterans had enrolled in the program, far fewer than the 17,250 Congress created it to serve, the agency said; just 397 had landed new jobs.
The story of VRRAP illustrates Washington’s often-losing battle to effectively spend the torrent of cash Congress threw at the coronavirus pandemic starting in March 2020. In all, lawmakers approved more than $5 trillion for covid relief, an unprecedented wave of emergency loans, grants and other assistance intended to fight the virus and pull America out of its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. But haste and carelessness in crafting the aid created a wellspring for fraud and waste — a mess that hundreds of federal investigators are still trying to clean up.
In VRRAP’s case, Congress bungled both the program’s design and its timing, critics said, diminishing the likelihood of attracting students. As of last week, roughly half the money had been spent, leaving VA on track to return tens of millions of dollars to the U.S. Treasury when the program expires in December.
Lawmakers didn’t address VA’s long struggle to police for-profit schools that engage in deceptive practices, as they set up a program that attracted many for-profit entities. Future Tech had been barred from receiving VA tuition payments for several coursesin 2012 after Illinois officials concluded that the school — then doing business under a different name — had submitted false reports and misled veterans. The school regained its eligibility in 2017, Future Tech said in a statement. Under VRRAP, it charged VA more than $25,000 per student per year, according to a tuition statement seen by The Post — just under the federal cap of $26,000 and about $7,000 higher than other computer boot camps approved by the program.
Future Tech said the school saw “tremendous success” with the pandemic program. The company described its earlier loss of eligibility for VA funding as the result of “minor” violations that have since been resolved. Its tuition and fees for VRRAP were appropriate, the statement said, for a year-long, 18 hour-per-week program that includes a laptop, practice exams and vouchers to take certification exams.
Future Tech acknowledged that illness and supply-chain snarls caused by the pandemic disrupted some courses for some students, but said the impacts were limited. It castigated Illinois officials for moving too hastily to shut off VRRAP funds.
“This decision disrupted the training for more than 300 veterans when just a handful had issues that could and should have been dealt with individually,” the company said. “We will never know what could have been achieved.”
‘We wanted to help them’
The troubles with VRRAP were achingly predictable: A similar program rolled out in 2012 — the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program, or VRAP — also failed to attract students and was widely regarded as a flop. Nonetheless, veterans advocates began pushing for another education benefit after the pandemic plunged the economy into free-fall, leaving many veterans unemployed.
Lawmakers did not include the program in the first covid aid package, the $2-trillion Cares Act signed by President Donald Trump. Instead, they waited until 2021, adding it to the $1.9-trillion American Rescue Plan Act signed by President Biden.
By then, VRRAP was a solution to a problem that no longer existed. At the height of the pandemic in 2020, veterans experienced a jobless rate of 6.5 percent, compared with 8 percent for nonveterans. By 2021, the unemployment rate among veterans had fallen to 4.4 percent. Last month, it stood at 2.7 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, hovering near record lows.
“We wanted this done sooner than it actually got passed. Now you have people saying, ‘Is it really needed? No one is using it,’ ” said Tom Porter, executive vice president for government relations for the nonpartisan Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which was involved in crafting the legislation.
James Ruhlman, VA’s deputy director for program management for education, acknowledged that the agency had a limited view of veteran unemployment during the pandemic. He said that even the Labor Department struggled to understand employment trends.
VA officials had other concerns about the program, which also provided students with a substantial monthly housing allowance, current and former agency officials said. In recent years, a swell of soldiers returning from the post-Sept. 11 conflicts have gotten an education using GI Bill benefits, and hundreds of schools have been vetted by state officials. But the VA inspector general also issued repeated warnings about duplications, delays and “financial risks” from the agency’s reliance on for-profit schools, including an emergency warning in 2018 that many states were failing to properly monitor the schools and getting poor oversight from VA.
To avoid repeating that troubled history, the agency structured tuition payments to be spread out, so the final check of three would be sent only after a student finds a job. But multiple schools with spotty track records that had qualified for other education programs got the green light to serve VRRAP students.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) publicized the Future Tech case after officials in Illinois investigated student complaints. “I don’t know if they did their due diligence,” he said of VA. “For-profit schools by and large are a fraud on the public, and the victims in this case are veterans, thinking that they were taking advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic opportunity.”
Asked about the timing of the program, Durbin said lawmakers were rushing to respond to an emergency. “We didn’t know if this pandemic was going to last two months or two years or longer,” the senator said. “We saw some very vulnerable people who had served our country. We wanted to help them. We just went to the wrong place.”
There were other issues.The narrowly drawn legislation limited tuition support to veterans who were not eligible for other educational benefits and were not receiving unemployment insurance or enrolled in any other federal or state jobs program — which risked leaving very few eligible applicants.
Meanwhile, the Veterans Benefits Administration, which oversees employment and training programs,did little to market theinitiative, according to congressional aides and veterans’ advocates.
“You would think something like that would be put out,” said Kevin Keller, an official with the Illinois Marine Corps League and other state veterans groups. “But the word never got out from VA.”
Some school administrators described a labyrinth of red tape as they tried to get paid or get questions answered, with emails languishing for months in no-reply inboxes at VA.
“Collectively, we feel like it was too big of a program [for VA] to quickly launch without understanding the space they were entering into,” said Alicia Boddy, chief operations and development officer at Code Platoon, a Chicago computer coding boot camp. She meets monthly with a group of other school administrators.
“Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong,” Boddy said.
A study in chaos
Future Tech grabbed an opportunity. Biden’s signature on the legislation was barely dry when the school began trumpeting the new benefit to veterans. In one May 2021 email, it advertised a “12-month program to fully utilize the 12 months of eligibility awarded you by VA.”
Opened in 2006 as the Computer Training Institute of Chicago, Future Tech now operates from ahigh-riseoffice building across Michigan Avenue from the Art Institute of Chicago. In a 2012 interview with one of its alumni, then the host of a local TV show on technology, program director Paul Johnson touted the school’s track record of connecting students with high-paying jobs.
“We network with the VA, we network with a number of different corporate organizations,” Johnson said.
In 2012, the school received approval from Illinois officials to provide VA-funded courses to veterans. (VA authorizes officials in each state to vet local educational institutions.) Within 10 months, however, the state had stripped Future Tech’seligibility for federal funding for the courses after concluding that administrators were submitting false reports and misleading veterans about costs.
Details of that decision were revealed after Johnson sued VA in federal court in 2013; the lawsuit was dismissed. In a statement, Future Tech said the 2012 violation “was regarding a statement on our website. The other violations mentioned were also minor. FTCI has added several new leaders and staff and strengthened our oversight” and regained VA eligibility in 2017.
As the pandemic deepened, the school switched to an online format. Last year, Johnson changed its name to Future Tech Career Institute, according to Illinois business records, and began welcoming VRRAP students.
It didn’t take long for dissatisfaction to settle in. “People were complaining to VA: ‘Hey they’re not teaching us,’” Culbreth recalled.
Promised a year of comprehensive training, many students said they found only disorganization as swelling enrollment outpaced instructors and administrative support.
“We literally didn’t know what class we were taking next,” said one veteran, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to be publicly associated with the school.
Tyra White, a former Air Force police officer now living in New Orleans, enrolled in Future Tech in June 2021 to study graphic design. She said students were continually added to her course on Adobe Creative Suite with no notice, taking the instructor off guard. Two other students in the course confirmed her account.
“We’d be in the middle of something, maybe in the third week of the program, and then someone would enter the program brand new and then just be thrown into the third week’s content,” White recalled. The instructor “would have to teach them on the break everything that was presented to us on week one.”
Two days a week, students were assigned to “lab time,” White said, when they were supposed to work independently with access to instructors to ask questions. But instructors were usually teaching an entirely different course and therefore unavailable, she said.
“The entire atmosphere while we were there was totally discouraging,” White said. “It was so disorganized.”
Even the promised laptops were a problem: In an email sent to Johnson that was reviewed by The Post, a student complained that some students had yet to receive their computers weeks into classes, while others had been given machines with insufficient memory.
In some cases, the school did not give students access to basic software programs, said Kenneth Bainey, a retired information technology professional based in Canada who teaches project management part-time at Future Tech.
“There were terrible issues with administration,” Bainey said. Textbooks “took a month to get,” he said, adding that he was forced to search for some chapters online.
Last week, Bainey placed blame on the students, saying some veterans were “terribly destructive.”
“They came to class, never did any assignments and expected certification,” he said. “We had to get rid of them, and then they complained.”
Future Tech blamed the chaos on the pandemic. “We did have some staffing challenges and online challenges — COVID made the world very difficult for all,” its statement said.
While illness caused staffing shortages that forced instructors to take on extra classes, this was done “for the shortest time possible,” the company said. Book delays were “isolated cases, not the norm.” Like the problems with laptops, delays were caused by “supply chain issues we are all sadly familiar with.”
Under VRRAP’s strict rules, students couldn’t switch schools without losing benefits. Many veterans complained bitterly to VA — and to Johnson, according to emails reviewed by The Post. By February, with rumors spreading that Future Tech might close, Johnson admonished students not to gossip, saying it could trigger “anxiety, PTSD or trauma.”
“Everything will work out,” he wrote in an email reviewed by The Post. “All of you will be fine.”
‘I’m so disappointed’
Three-and-a-half weeks later, VA cut off payments to Future Tech.
A VA claims processor in Muskogee, Okla., had become suspicious after spotting a tenfold spike in enrollment in December 2021, VA officials said. Years of experience suggested that exploding enrollment at a for-profit school could be a sign of trouble.
VA notified the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs, which found serious problems at Future Tech, including missing instructors, changing course lengths, students forced to take night courses when they had requested a day schedule, instructors who lacked certifications, “substantial misrepresentations” and sloppy record-keeping, according to a letter sent to Johnson in February.
For Future Tech students, the decision abruptly cut off not only tuition payments but also a housing allowance of more than $2,000 a month. Culbreth said she briefly was forcedto live out of her car and in a homeless shelter.
Frustrated by the lack of instruction, Culbreth had joined other students in an independent study group and managed to earn specialized certification in cloud web services. But she had hoped to earn certification in three or four other areas. Today, she works as a project coordinator for a tech company, a less technical position that doesn’t pay enough to rent her own apartment, she said.
“I’m drowning here,” said Culbreth, whohas been staying with a friend. “I’m so disappointed. I would have finished. I would have gotten my certifications. I wouldn’t have let anything stop me.”
The program’s disappointing showing has prompted two congressional hearings. In February, Rep. Mike Levin (D-Calif.), chairman of a House subcommittee focused on economic opportunity for veterans, pressed for data on education quality at for-profit schools and asked how VA defines “successful employment.” Program integration officer Ricardo DaSilva conceded that the agency does not study job retention.
In May, a senior VA Education Service official objected to Levin’s proposal to boost enrollment by adding four-year colleges to VRRAP’s roster of schools, saying the change would cause “new administrative burdens” months before the program expires.Levin fired back: “The status quo is entirely unacceptable.”
A month later, Congress passed legislation authorizing VA to recover at least $4.2 million in tuition and fees from schools whose approvals were pulled, including Future Tech. Nothing has yet been recovered, and Ruhlman said he is not confident anything will be.
“I wouldn’t say it will be easy to get it back,” he said.
Asked about the program’s failures, Ruhlman said “there are hurdles and a number of administrative problems to be solved in the rollout of any federal program.” He noted that VRRAP was created “in a very fairly short period of time.”
In July, Future Tech changed its name yet again: It is now the Institute of Business and Technology Careers, according to Illinois business records. The school said it has been told by state officials that it could reapply for future VA programs.
Ruhlman predicted VA officials would“put that application … under extreme scrutiny.”
“Given what has happened,” he said, “I would say that the bar would be fairly high.”