Editor’s note: This story has been changed to clarify the Veterans Affairs Department’s expression of sympathy to Ashford students.
An online university in danger of losing its eligibility to enroll GI Bill users, recently allowed by the Department of Veterans Affairs to continue such enrollments pending court appeals, is accusing the VA of disseminating bad information and wants students to go to the White House with complaints.
The VA announced last month it was pulling Ashford University’s eligibility to accept GI Bill funds on Aug. 16 after an Iowa court dismissed the for-profit school’s request to retain eligibility for its online programs after closing its only campus in the state in 2016. But on Friday, department officials sent an email to Ashford’s 4,500 GI Bill students informing them that they would not lose their benefits on that date and expressing sympathy to the students for having to deal with a fluid situation.
In the email, Curtis Coy, deputy undersecretary for economic opportunity of the VA Veterans Benefits Administration told students, “Based on changes to Ashford’s resident programs last year, Iowa’s (State Approving Agency), the agency that previously approved Ashford online programs for VA benefits, found Ashford not in compliance with GI Bill approval criteria. This resulted in a court case in which the court, on July 17, 2017, dismissed Ashford’s petition to remain eligible for GI Bill participation.”
But Ashford — among the top 20 most popular schools for veterans — has since appealed the decision. This action extends its GI Bill eligibility while the court considers the motion, according to Coy’s message, which followed a year of emails from the VA to Ashford’s veteran students alerting them to the ongoing court case and what the outcome could mean for their benefits.
Meanwhile, Ashford President and CEO Craig Swenson also sent multiple messages to students, in which he stated that the VA was providing them with “misinformation.”
He wrote Aug. 2, “We have received reports from some Ashford student veterans that they have been advised by the VA that they no longer have access to GI Bill benefits. Others have been told that they will no longer be able to use their GI Bill benefits at Ashford University effective Aug. 16, 2017, as a result of the Iowa court decision. If you are concerned about misinformation provided to you by the VA regarding certification of your benefits for attendance at Ashford University, or the threat to your educational benefits that has been spread by these miscommunications, you may wish to speak out.”
Swenson included the number for the White House’s new veterans’ complaint hotline, where he said students should voice concerns about the VA’s administration of their benefits.
He reiterated these instructions in another update to students Friday, before the VA sent out its latest update. In this message, he informed students that although the university’s online programs were approved to accept GI Bill funds in Arizona — a move Ashford hoped would salvage its eligibility at the federal level — the VA did not accept the state’s notice of approval “in its current form” and had requested additional information.
Lauren Coartney, a spokeswoman for Ashford’s parent company, Bridgepoint Education, said the school is working closely with the Arizona State Approving Agency to provide this information.
She said in an email Monday, “To summarize, even though Ashford is at this very moment approved through not one but two state approving agencies, VA has incorrectly and irresponsibly advised our GI Bill students to the contrary, no doubt causing stress and confusion. The VA did send an email to students clarifying some of these issues ... but we are still hearing reports of benefits being denied.”
Coy said in an emailed statement that the information the VA has sent to students is accurate.
“We are keeping veterans informed of what’s happening following the court decision in Iowa,” he said. “We continue to ensure that we are good stewards of taxpayer money and will not provide any new approval until we are satisfied VA guidelines are met.”
If the court rules against Ashford’s motion, the school will have 30 days to appeal the decision, according to a VA spokesman. If they do not, then the withdrawal of eligibility would become final. The GI Bill would continue to cover students’ classes that had already begun, but students would no longer be able to use their benefits for future courses unless the approval process in another state is complete.
According to a recent Military Times analysis of federal data, Ashford enrolled a total of 7,935 students online using $37.8 million in GI Bill benefits last year.
It’s unclear how many students — if any — have called the White House to complain. A White House spokesman directed all questions to a VA spokesman, who did not comment on whether Ashford students had used the hotline.
He said there is no need for the White House to intervene, however, and that this is a case of the VA and a state authorizing agency working together to ensure the best outcomes for veterans.