For-profit colleges are taking advantage of veterans

Lesley Toth
Lesley Toth

Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson deserves a huge thank you from state veterans and their families for her pursuit of for-profit colleges’ unscrupulous treatment of students receiving Montgomery G.I. benefits.

Swanson announced last week that her office’s investigation into these businesses would focus on the fact that most of them are receiving millions of dollars in G.I. benefits while their veteran students are dropping out  in alarming rates. In the past three years, 53 percent of the $300.2 million in G.I. Bill benefits sent to Minnesota veterans have gone to for-profit schools.

A report commissioned last year by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) intensifies this debate by finding that more than 54 percent of those enrolled at for-profit education institutions dropped out before obtaining a bachelor’s degree and an astounding 63 percent left without an associate’s degree. The numbers are even higher among veterans.

The reasons for these high enrollment numbers yet dismal graduation rates are not too hard to figure out. First, is the recruitment practices of these for-profit schools. When he returned from Iraq in the fall of 2005, my husband began looking for colleges. A single request for information from one of these for-profit institutions elicited non-stop junk mail, phone calls and constant email spam. The relentless onslaught of promises of job advancement, short-cuts to earning a degree and potential career building made the Army recruiting seem like soft sale tactics.

All too often, these promises are appealing to returning veterans who face 24 percent unemployment in Minnesota, one of the highest in the nation. The assurances that their military experience would jump-start their higher educations haven’t materialized. The promise that those combat skills they’ve learned would boost their employment opportunities has fallen far short. Many of them have families to care for and little civilian job experience. Earning a degree in “half the time!” while “You can keep your fulltime job!!” is a lot more tempting than the unemployment line or colleges that are more up-front about the time and cost involved in obtaining a degree.

All too often, once a student enrolls in these for-profit colleges, they are on their own. Recruiters are sure to sign up these veterans for their G.I. Bill benefits, but as soon as the check is cashed, veterans can expect little to zero support from their for-profit school.

As a demographic, veterans’ needs are different from the average student when it comes to college. Without the help of a dedicated veterans’ financial aid advisor, professors who happen to also be veterans, and the Student Veterans Organization on his public college campus (I must brag a bit here — an organization that chose him for president), my husband may not be pulling straight As and eying graduation in a few, short months.

The SVO offers a room of friendly faces; guys and gals who “get” what it’s like to be a veteran in college; people they can relate to and vent with when they overhear fellow classmates complaining about their Facebook “problems” and professors who, accustomed to young, fresh students, preach about the “real world.” For-profit schools offer little in the form of these types of support mechanisms.

Institutions that take advantage of these men and women returning from war zones should be thoroughly investigated and serious consequences should be dealt. These schools should not receive a single penny from taxpayer-funded veterans benefits unless they can prove a significant percentage of those they serve actually earn degrees. Every veteran they have manipulated and let down should have immediate reimbursements of the benefits these schools have taken and wasted.

I encourage readers to urge AG Swanson to continue her appreciated efforts to crack down on these shameful practices. While  you’re at it, Sen. Amy Klobuchar could also use a few thousand calls, emails and letters. Her proposal to add 50,000 H1B visas so more foreign nationals can be hired in America for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs is misguided on several levels. Considering that many returning veterans are pursuing degrees, like my husband, in computer science related fields, why don’t we figure out a way to graduate more of these veterans in STEM fields rather than import more lower-paid workers? There are plenty of unemployed Minnesota veterans who are crying out for the opportunities STEM jobs provide.

Veterans need — and have earned — someone who is more interested in helping them obtain the skills needed for high-paying jobs than they are in importing low-wage labor. Veterans need — and deserve — someone who is interested more in helping them accomplish their goals than helping them cash those benefits checks.