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Hearing to address new school restrictions

May. 15, 2012 - 05:29PM   |   Last Updated: May. 15, 2012 - 05:29PM  |  
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Congress is preparing to dive into President Obama's executive order on schools receiving tuition assistance and GI Bill money the details of which are still a mystery to some officials.

The House Veterans' Affairs Committee's economic opportunity panel will hold a hearing Wednesday to discuss the executive order, featuring 12 witnesses from veterans advocacy groups, including the Student Veterans of America, as well as representatives of both non-profit and for-profit schools and the Veterans Affairs Department.

The executive order, which Obama signed April 27, included several policies aimed at curbing deceptive recruiting and lending practices by some educational institutions, particularly for-profit schools.

The order requires schools to provide incoming students with a customized "Know Before You Owe" data sheet detailing their loan options and expected debt when they graduate, as well as industry-wide data for comparison, and to alert eligible students that they can receive federal financial aid before offering them private loans that are often more expensive.

The order also requires the Defense Department to create its own rules on how educational institutions can recruit on military installations, and tells the secretaries of defense and veterans affairs to create a centralized process for handling students' complaints.

Given the recent push to more thoroughly regulate schools that serve military students and veterans, Jim Sweizer, vice president of military programs for American Military University, said he was not surprised by the measures Obama laid out.

"A lot of what you see in the executive order I think had been proposed in one way or another in different forms of legislation that some of our senators and congressmen were going to introduce anyway," Sweizer said. "So quite frankly, we were not that shocked."

However, he said the executive order is ambiguous about how its provisions will be enforced.

The executive order calls on DoD and VA to "reflect the principles described … in new agreements with educational institutions, to the extent practicable and permitted by law, concerning participation in the Yellow Ribbon Program … or the Tuition Assistance Program."

Sweizer suggested that DoD will likely incorporate the new executive order in the Memorandum of Understanding it now requires all schools receiving tuition assistance to sign. However, after some big-name institutions revolted against the initial MOU requirement last year, defense officials took the MOU back to the drawing board for tweaks. A new version is expected to be ready by late summer or early fall.

The Pentagon has promised it will honor any MOUs that schools have already signed, but Sweizer said they might have to make dramatic changes to the document in light of Obama's order.

The executive order also steps into a long-standing debate on how to measure educational completion and attainment for veterans and active-duty troops. Currently, few schools report graduation rates specifically for those groups; many argue that the number could be misleading, since non-traditional learners often take longer to complete a degree and often transfer between schools before finishing.

The executive order requires the Pentagon, VA and Department of Education to develop metrics to track success for anyone receiving Post-9/11 GI Bill or Tuition Assistance benefits, and to make those statistics available on the">College Navigator website.

Despite some uncertainty surrounding the executive order, Jim Selbe, vice president of military operations at University of Maryland University College, one of the largest schools serving the military com,munity, said the new policies will likely do some good in protecting service members.

However, he added that the emphasis on reporting continues what he sees as a troubling trend in the past decade.

"There is some concern that the federal government continues to ask colleges and universities to assume the role of academic advisor or educational counselor in their effort to mitigate fraudulent enrollment," Selbe said. "You've got uninformed consumers, and the federal government's response, at least in the last couple years, has been to shift this responsibility to those same schools that they had expressed concern about."

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