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US veterans defrauded by for-profit universities fight to restore benefits

When Antonio Luna enrolled in DeVry University, he thought it would launch him into a career in technology. Luna, then just leaving the marines, could use his military benefits to pay for a bachelor’s degree. DeVry touted eye-popping job placement numbers, and because college staff had previously been invited on to his base in North Carolina to speak with students, Luna thought they could be trusted.

But after graduating in 2018, Luna couldn’t find employment in his field.

It wasn’t just him. The Department of Education has concluded last year that the job placement statistics DeVry provided were highly misleading and canceled the federal loans of students like Luna who enrolled there.

But Luna didn’t use federal loans to pay for his education, he used federal GI. Bill benefits that he earned through his military service. And though he was misled by DeVry, he can’t get those benefits restored.

“I thought that since they came to our base, they’re not going to defraud us,” he said. “It felt like I wasted four years in school for nothing.”

Education benefits are one of the major reasons that young people enlist in the US military. Veterans are entitled to essentially four years of tuition and fees paid for by the government. But when colleges target and prey on veterans, the students have little recourse.

Now, two legislative efforts in Congress, one in each chamber, are aiming to change that, restoring GI Bill benefits to veterans who were victims of fraud.

“It will provide a way for myself to get some closure after being defrauded,” Luna said.

The office of Representative Delia Ramirez, who is sponsoring the House effort, believes at least 60,000 former students could stand to benefit. Other legislative efforts have tried to achieve similar measures, but left gaps in eligibility.

“We still haven’t addressed the long-standing problem,” Rep. Ramirez said in an interview.

“This bill to me really does a job at addressing predatory for-profit schools and creating parity for veteran students.”

The origin of the problem lies in jurisdiction. Although the Department of Education may find a college has tricked students, it has no say over GI Bill benefits, which are administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The VA has no legal authority to restore benefits or to claw money back from bad actor colleges.

“When the Department of Ed finds out there was wrongdoing, that actually has no bearing on whether the students who are veterans are going to get their money back, because they’re using GI Bill dollars,” said Will Hubbard, vice-president for veterans and military policy at Veterans Education Success, a nonprofit organization. “Veterans shouldn’t be left out.”

Other efforts at restoration have been too strict, said Patrick Murray, legislative director at Veterans of Foreign Wars.

“This is hopefully finally closing the loop to make sure that we cover everybody that we can,” Murray said. “We’ve slowly chipped away at it. We believe this will hopefully be the last time that we can finally make veterans whole.”

Though colleges in all sectors have sought to enroll veterans, for-profit colleges like DeVry for many years faced specific regulations that incentivized veteran recruitment. These colleges must receive ten percent of their revenue from sources outside the Department of Education’s loans and grants. Until recently, G.I. Bill funds could help a college meet that target.

Brian Whitehead attended another for-profit college, ITT Technical Institute. Whitehead, who has campaigned in support of the legislative efforts, left the Army in 2005. The support he would receive when getting an education was the main reason he enlisted.

“You’re always told that you need a bachelor’s degree or some kind of degree to really advance. I wanted to learn more,” Whitehead said. “My goal was always to go to college. The military became an avenue to get to my goal.”

He used his benefits to pay for an associate degree program at ITT Tech, but found the education alarmingly substandard. He never used his degree to get a job and other colleges wouldn’t transfer his credits. Though his federal loans were canceled, he’s lost his military benefits for good.

“I’ve gotten the money taken off of my federal loans, but I still don’t have the opportunity to advance myself education-wise,” Whitehead said.

ITT closed in 2016 after several federal sanctions.

If the benefits are restored, it’s unclear how many eligible veterans will end up taking advantage of the new law. In 2018, after benefits were restored to veterans whose colleges closed, the Military Times reported that only 20% of eligible applicants had applied for restoration after nine months.

“We have to make sure that the organizations that veterans trust, a lot of these [veterans service organizations], and other groups that they already work — direct social service agencies in their communities, their churches and their partners — that they are partnering with the VA to provide the information necessary and even help them and assist them in filing their claim,” Ramirez said.

For Whitehead, restoration is a government responsibility.

“We’re trusting that the schools that are agreed upon for you to go to are going to do the right thing by us. When they don’t, there should be a restoration process,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity to show veterans they still care about the things that happen to us.”

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