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New complaint reporting system for schools on the way

Jun. 14, 2013 - 04:10PM   |  
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The federal government is testing, and plans to soon implement, a broad new complaint reporting system designed to root out the “bad apples” among education institutions that serve troops and veterans, a Defense Department official told Congress.

Frederick Vollrath, assistant secretary of defense for readiness and force management, said the automated system, scheduled to start Sept. 1, will coordinate information and efforts across the Defense, Veterans Affairs, Education and Justice departments, as well as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

This will help federal officials more easily figure out which schools create the most problems for student veterans, Vollrath said.

“Putting them all together ... will give us a better picture of what’s going on,” he told the Senate Appropriations Committee’s defense panel June 12. “We will share problems. We will also go back to the institution, and make sure that we can follow up with the student.”

The new system is part of a wide-ranging government response to charges that some for-profit schools take advantage of military and veteran students, scooping up their federal education benefits while providing little in return.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who has sharply criticized for-profit schools, led the hearing, pressing Vollrath to do more and expressing concern about the large number of students on tuition assistance attending for-profit schools.

“What I worry about is someone ... who signs up for a worthless school, something where the diploma, if it ever happens, doesn’t take you anywhere,” Durbin said. “We haven’t done our military any favors if that happens.”

Representatives of for-profit schools strongly objected to Durbin’s characterizations, saying that while there have been some bad actors, most for-profits serve students well. Military students have been flocking to such schools, they added, because they have more quickly and thoroughly adopted the flexible types of classes that active-duty troops need.

Vollrath echoed that sentiment, saying “for-profit schools were among the first to emphasize online education, a model that best fits the needs of our highly mobile service members.”

While the hearing brought out sharp disagreements on some issues, there was consensus on the importance of maintaining tuition assistance. Some services attempted to suspend TA earlier this year, citing budget shortfalls, but a loud outcry and quick action from veterans groups led Congress to mandate that the program continue as before.

In addition to developing the complaint reporting system, officials also have required schools to sign a memorandum of understanding to participate in tuition assistance. That memorandum requires schools to disclose certain information to military students. A revised version of that document, expected to contain more strict rules, is in development, but DoD would not say when it will be released.

Jim Sweizer, vice president for military programs at for-profit American Military University — the country‘s top destination for students using tuition assistance — praised DoD’s efforts.

Initiatives like the complaint reporting system will help differentiate his school from the kind that give the business a bad name, Sweizer said.

“It’s long overdue. We fully support weeding out the bad players in the sector, because we get caught up in this frenzy,” he said.

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