Education and Transition

The GI Bill, private colleges and the unfortunate practice of ‘swapping’

When my son began attending an expensive private college, I laboriously prepared and submitted a raft of financial forms and documents to determine our family’s eligibility for financial assistance, and was delighted to receive notification from the college that we qualified for a needs-based grant of $19,000 for the upcoming school year. Knowing that the post-9/11 GI Bill provides a tuition and fee benefit of approximately $25,000 for private colleges, I subtracted that amount plus the $19,000 grant we were awarded from the $60,000 annual tuition and fee cost to arrive at a balance owed by us of $16,000. I dutifully applied part of my GI Bill eligibility, paid $8,000 in the fall semester and $8,000 in the spring semester — and was shocked and mystified when the college informed me at the end of the year that I had a $19,000 outstanding balance. What gives?

It turns out that I had been the victim of “swapping.” Swapping is a practice whereby private colleges “suck back” needs-based grant money they award dollar-for-dollar for any GI Bill tuition and fee benefit the member, veteran, or eligible dependent receives. Their rationale is that the GI Bill tuition and fee benefit is the equivalent of a scholarship, Pell Grant, and other external means of defraying college tuition and fee costs, which are subject to swapping — so why shouldn’t GI Bill money be subject to swapping as well? According to the college, swapping is a common practice by private colleges. The net effect of the “swapping” that occurred in my case is that I, the veteran, derived only a $6,000 net annual tuition and fee benefit from using the GI Bill ($25,000 minus the $19,000 grant that was “swapped”), while the college was enriched by $19,000 (the amount it otherwise would have contributed as a needs-based grant).

As this illustrates, swapping is a pernicious practice whereby private colleges enrich themselves by the amount of the needs-based grant they otherwise would have made to the member, veteran, or eligible dependent. In the process, they diminish, dollar-for-dollar up to the amount of the needs-based grant, the value of the $25,000 annual GI Bill tuition and fee benefit — a benefit designed to make college more affordable and thus more accessible for members, veterans, and eligible dependents. They do so under the false rationale that the tuition and fee benefit is just like every other grant or scholarship, instead of an entitlement earned by those who have served in our armed forces in the demanding and dangerous post-9/11 world.

It does not appear that there is legal recourse to challenge this practice; colleges are, after all, entitled to provide needs-based financial aid (or not) as they see fit. There is moral recourse, however, which begins by exposing this practice generally (as this commentary does). Moral recourse can and should expand to include bringing this practice to the attention of elected officials, and also ascertaining and publicly exposing the swapping practices of individual educational institutions.

There is also recourse through the VA, which, as mandated by Executive Order 13607 of April 27, 2012, has established “Principles of Excellence” for educational institutions serving service members, veterans, spouses, and other family members. This executive order and the Principles of Excellence that result were a response to predatory practices by colleges and universities when the post-9/11 GI Bill was first rolled out. The purpose of the principles includes ensuring that educational institutions provide meaningful information about the financial cost and quality of educational institutions to assist prospective students in making choices about how to use their federal educational benefits. The VA amend its Principles of Excellence to prohibit “swapping,” which would force colleges currently engaging in the practice to either give it up, or face the opprobrium and other consequences of no longer being compliant with the principles. This change would be fully in line with the intent of the GI Bill overall, and with the intent of the principles to force educational institutions to provide meaningful information about college costs, which may prevent future GI Bill users from receiving an unpleasant $19,000 surprise like I did!

Retired Coast Guard Capt. Andy Norris is an attorney who now works as a legal and maritime consultant. Have you been the victim of swapping? Let him know at anorris@tradewindmaritimeservices.com

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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