This was originally posted on Higher Ed Watch's sister blog, Ed Money Watch.
Every year the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) directs a huge chunk of federal spending to higher education for veterans education benefits — more than $1.7 billion in the 2009-10 school year alone. But VA education benefits are often overlooked in education policy discussions. This is largely because of a lack of transparency in the VA budget. The agency doesn’t make good accounting information readily available. On top of these opaque budgeting practices, little information is available on the effectiveness of the current iteration of the GI Bill, how schools spend that money, or the degree to which veterans actually benefit from these programs. That’s starting to change. But policymakers can do more.
President Obama issued an executive order last week to crack down on how schools use VA and Department of Defense (DoD) funds. (Benefits for veterans are provided through a slew of VA programs, most notably the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Active duty servicemembers receive funding through the Department of Defense’s Tuition Assistance Program, rather than through the G.I. Bill.)
Under the president’s order, all schools enrolled in VA’s Post-9/11 GI Bill program (approximately 6,000 institutions) will be encouraged—and all DoD Tuition Assistance participating institutions mandated—to improve transparency and provide documentation of tuition and fees, financial aid information, and details of student outcomes at the school – much like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s (CFPB) proposed “Know Before You Owe” sheet. The order also restricts the recruiting practices of Institutions participating in veterans education benefit programs.
The president’s executive order seeks to improve the quality of services the DoD and VA provide students by developing a complaint system whereby the agency quickly responds to concerns about funding or support services. Media reports earlier this year revealed disturbing figures concerning VA administrative failures. Tens of thousands of veterans education benefits were stalled in processing – as many as 62,000 applicants in one branch alone. As a result, tuition payments hadn’t reached many schools and housing stipends were delayed for months in many cases. The VA argued that during peak enrollment periods, it often experiences backlog.
Separately, a new report from the Center for American Progress (CAP), “Easing the Transition from Combat to Classroom,” provides some previously unavailable information on veterans education benefits that also helps to illuminate some of the delays in processing mentioned above. Largely thanks to the passage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, VA has seen a dramatic increase in federal education funding in recent years commensurate with increasing numbers of veterans and major enrollment growth – 37 percent from 2009 to 2010.
But the administrative concerns that the president seeks to address in his executive order beg a larger question: What is the quality of VA oversight?
Though lawmakers funnel a significant amount of education benefits to veterans through the VA, limited access to information about those funds and programs mean veterans—and taxpayers—are often left in the dark. Public funds are spent with minimal information as to the success of federal efforts. The president’s order may shine a light on certain aspects of VA Post-9/11 GI Bill, but it may not go far enough to provide veterans what they were promised – access to equitable and high-quality education. That’s going to require more oversight and regulation from the White House and Congress.