March 2, 2011

Durbin: VA Disqualifies Three Westwood College Campuses From GI Bill Program

Agency finds evidence of false, deceptive and misleading recruiting tactics

[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) today announced that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has withdrawn education benefits from Westwood College’s Houston South, Dallas and Fort Worth campuses. This announcement by the VA comes in the response to a February 14 letter to the Secretary of the VA, Eric Shinseki, in which Durbin requested a list of colleges and universities where the VA has suspended or withdrawn GI Bill and education benefits after discovering questionable recruiting practices used by these institutions.

 

“The VA has found clear abuses of the GI Bill that is meant to help the men and women who have served our country continue their education,” said Durbin. “I commend the VA for cutting off federal funding to these Westwood College campuses for what appears to be some of the worst abuses of the system. I look forward to meeting with Secretary Shinseki to discuss how we can work together to protect taxpayer dollars and ensure veterans have access to a quality education.”

 

This action against Westwood was in response to findings of erroneous, deceptive, and misleading advertising and enrollment practices at these institutions. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, students enrolled for fall were paid through the term but future enrollments will not be approved for VA benefits. Additionally, Westwood College is required to notify students that the school is no longer approved for VA benefits.

 

 

Durbin also commented today on the results of a GAO investigation – unrelated to VA GI Bill benefits - into abuses of the Department of Defense’s Tuition Assistance Program that is the subject of a hearing of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee today. The GAO found that the Department of Defense lacks basic oversight mechanisms such as a system to track complaints and a comprehensive quality review process. According to the study, less than a third of the courses offered to military members have been reviewed.

 

“While the Department of Defense has begun to take actions to adapt its review system to the new reality of for-profit college dominance, I understand that reviews of distance education programs will not begin until 2012,” said Durbin. “The Department of Defense must do more to ensure that federal taxpayer dollars are being well-spent and that servicemembers are receiving the highest quality of education. I will continue to press the Department to adopt quality control measures in the tuition assistance program that ensure the best use of taxpayer funds.”

 

[Text of Durbin’s statement for the record is below]

 

Senator Richard J. Durbin

Statement for the Record

“Preventing Abuse of the Military's Tuition Assistance Program”

Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management,

Government Information, Federal Services, and International Security

March 2, 2011

 

I would like to thank Senator Carper for holding this hearing.  I have grown increasingly concerned that for-profit colleges are taking advantage of federal taxpayer dollars and doing more harm than good for their students.  I commend the Chairman for tackling this important issue as it relates to our nation’s servicemembers.  I share the Chairman’s concerns that the rapid growth of for-profit colleges in military education may be putting our servicemembers at risk.  This subcommittee’s examination of federal oversight of military tuition assistance is timely and appropriate.

 

There are many good for-profit colleges that are providing a valuable education to students.  But there are also too many for-profit colleges that are more concerned with profits than student success.  This hearing will highlight the troubling findings of a GAO study that reveals a lack of quality oversight by the Department of Defense over participating education programs.  Our servicemembers deserve better.

 

The Department of Defense has offered servicemembers assistance to pursue a college education since the end of World War II.  Tuition assistance is intended to cover tuition costs up to $250 per credit hour and up to $4,500 per year.  Over the past decade, tuition assistance spending has risen from $158 million in FY2000 to $580 million in FY10, which covered tuition expenses for 380,0000 servicemembers. 

 

More than 70 percent of tuition assistance now goes for distance learning courses.  Distance learning provides flexibility and portability for the military population, but it also provides an opening for abuse.  More than 40 percent of funding for the tuition assistance program now goes to for-profit colleges.

 

The rapid increase in tuition assistance dollars going to for-profit colleges is explained by recruiting practices.  For-profit colleges are aggressively pursuing DOD tuition assistance funding by targeting recruitment at servicemembers. 

 

Kaplan University has 300 employees on its military recruiting team.  Some for-profit schools lure in students by offering servicemembers laptops, easy courses, or credit for military experience to dramatically shorten degree length.  University of Phoenix offers active-duty service members an associate’s degree in five weeks.  These facts indicate that for-profit colleges are more concerned with enrolling military students than providing a valuable educational experience.

 

GAO’s report, “Preventing Abuse of the Military's Tuition Assistance Program,” raises another red flag about the lack of oversight over more than $500 million annually in federal taxpayer dollars.  GAO found that the Department of Defense lacks basic oversight mechanisms such as a system to track complaints and a comprehensive quality review process.  According to the study, less than a third of the courses offered to military members have been reviewed. 

 

GAO also found that schools on base are subject to the highest level of oversight, even though 71 percent of courses taken are online.  And there is little or no coordination between DOD and the Department of Education or the colleges’ accreditors. 

 

I am concerned that the current system allows for-profit colleges to earn millions of dollars from taxpayer-funded programs, while providing a low-quality education to students.  According to reports from firms that work to place veterans in employment, degrees from for-profit colleges are not as highly valued as traditional colleges.  I have heard from multiple veterans in my state who have found that the credits they earned using tuition assistance at for-profit colleges won’t transfer to public universities in Illinois.

 

And the cost to the taxpayers is high.  DOD caps tuition assistance at $250 per credit hour or $750 per course.  Many for-profit colleges, including University of Phoenix, charge exactly that amount.  In comparison, community colleges offer classes on military bases for as little as $50 per credit hour.

 

The Department must also ensure that education benefits recipients are armed with the knowledge necessary to make fully informed decisions about the schools they choose to attend and the potential long-term consequences of those choices.  For instance, a servicemember should be clearly informed that it might be difficult to transfer credits earned at a given school to a four-year institution because of its accreditation level.  And, servicemembers must certainly know that the school has mistreated their colleagues in uniform.

 

The Department of Defense has begun to take actions to adapt its review system to the new reality of for-profit college dominance among students who are in the military.  I understand that DOD will begin reviewing distance education programs, but not until 2012.  The Department of Defense must do more to ensure that federal taxpayer dollars are being well-spent and that servicemembers are receiving the highest possible quality of education.  I will continue to press the Department to adopt quality control measures in the tuition assistance program that ensure the best use of taxpayer funds.

 

Again, I thank the Chairman for holding this hearing and I look forward to continuing to work with him to address this important issue.

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