As a United States Marine Corps veteran and former chairman and current member of the New York City Council Committee on Veterans, I am deeply concerned about the future of our returning servicemen and women.
Eleven years ago, at the dawn of the 21st century, the military seemed like a viable option for so many young people fresh out of high school: a way to serve their country, make their families proud, earn a good wage, and ultimately, pay for their higher education.
But just as the hiring of private military companies represented an egregious transfer of public funds from the military of the United States to private security firms accountable to no one, a small but growing number of colleges and universities are lining up to promote themselves as the “best” or even the only option for returning vets hoping to take advantage of the GI Bill. The implicit goal is to collect money from the government and taxpayers that these GIs have earned with blood to line their pockets, effectively privatizing the implementation of the GI Bill.
These proprietary schools are using unscrupulous advertising agencies to direct veterans their way, convincing students that their options for education are limited to the schools on their web pages. Some of these schools are not even accredited institutions, and many are failing the vets who are taken in by these schemes, hurrying them through the necessary classes and programs to collect funds from the government, without doing a thing to prepare returning veterans for the working world.
There are in fact, more than 6,000 schools nationwide that accept funding through the GI Bill, and host a broad range of military- and post military-related career opportunities and majors. The only true resource for veterans to learn about their GI Bill opportunities is the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: gibill.va.gov/. Other sites marketing themselves as “GI Bill Websites” are run by ad agencies, bent on shoveling students to their clients.
Now President Obama has declared that combat missions in Iraq will officially draw to a close, and the last troops will be home by the end of the calendar year. As a massive influx of war weary post 9/11 veterans — many still of college age — return home, they will make a renewed push to take advantage of the monies for education available to them through the GI Bill. But what will they find? Will the federal government be ready to accommodate our brave men and women who risked life and limb to keep us safe? Or will they find themselves the victims of clever marketing schemes by proprietary schools out to eat up as much of the funding available from the government as possible?
Improper enforcement of the rules governing the dispersion of GI Bill funds, coupled with a proprietary business model employed by some schools and their advertising agencies, are creating a perfect storm conspired against our veterans. We are failing them, and in turn, failing ourselves.
I propose moving boldly against these institutions and their advertising agencies. I propose that any school that fails to graduate at least 50 percent of its veteran students, or that fails to get accredited, be disqualified from GI Bill funds. I propose they be vigorously investigated and, if necessary, severely fined by the Department of Education, or suffer any other course of action or sanction that can be applied.
For nearly 10 years, our veterans have fought tirelessly to root out terrorism, liberate Iraq from the clutches of an insane dictator, find and kill Osama bin Laden, and usher in what many are calling the “Arab Spring,” as one nation after another sees democratic revolution. We owe these brave men and women more than simply our thanks and adulation. We owe them a future of opportunity and possibility. We owe them the GI Bill.
I refuse to allow it to be privatized.
James Sanders Jr. is New York City Councilman for the 31st District in Southeastern Queens and the Rockaways.