Last night the Senate passed its version of H.R. 4057, the Improving Transparency in Education for Veterans Act, a bill inspired by and ultimately passed through VFW’s diligent advocacy efforts.
In an official statement this morning, VFW Commander-in-Chief John Hamilton applauded the passage and thanked the leaders of both the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees for making student-veteran consumer protections a top priority. To read VFW’s official statement click here.
The bill must now go back to the House to be passed in its final form, which the VFW expects to happen before close-of-business on Friday.
However, getting to this point was no easy task, and critics often told the VFW that the bill would make little difference for student-veterans and had scant chances of passing. Here’s an explanation of how we arrived at passing H.R. 4057 and why the VFW always disagreed with the critics:
In fall 2011, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee majority staff released a report highlighting improprieties among certain for-profit schools that the committee believed to be exploiting veterans for their education benefits. The VFW and many other veterans’ advocates balked at the report and started to discuss ways to ensure that veterans couldn’t simply be “dollar signs in uniform.”
However, once the VFW started to peel back the layers of the American higher education system, it became clear to the VFW that the problem was not as simple as pointing fingers at individual schools, but rather understanding how veterans make their educational choices and how well they understand the benefits to which they are entitled.
What the VFW discovered was that veterans were never armed with quality information or reasonable consumer protections when they chose to access their GI Bill benefits. Instead, veterans had to sift through troves of incomplete and often unreliable information on a fractured education system, hoping to make some kind of educational choice that would help fulfill their career aspirations. Plus, if a veteran chose a program that failed to live up to its promises, they had no recourse against the institution.
In one meeting late in 2011, a VA official told a panel of veterans’ advocates that if students had complaints about their schools, they could reach out directly to him. To the VFW, this answer was wildly insufficient. Also, according to the 2010 National Survey of Veterans, only 58.9 percent of Post-9/11 veterans reported having even “some” knowledge of VA education and training benefits. The system set up to inform veterans about their earned education benefits was clearly failing.
As this discussion played out, deficit hawks on Capitol Hill started to think that Post-9/11 GI Bill dollars might be going to waste, and targeted the benefit for potential cuts through the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction. The VFW had to act.
In January, the VFW built a large coalition of veterans’ advocates like Student Veterans of America and the American Legion, as well as higher education experts across all sectors, drafting a letter to the House, Senate, and the White House calling for improved consumer information and consumer protections for student-veterans.
President Barack Obama responded by issuing Executive Order #13607, ordering his federal agencies to improve their business processes; Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., introduced H.R. 4057, directing VA to improve its consumer education tools for student-veterans; and Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., Jim Webb, D-Va., and Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., responded by crafting a series of bills designed to tighten counseling and reporting requirements for schools.
As the 112th Congress carried on its business, VFW, SVA and the Legion quickly built consensus among legislators in both the House and Senate that H.R. 4057 was the simplest solution to improving consumer information for veterans, and the House passed it easily on Sept. 12.
Later in September, the VFW National Legislative Committee converged on Capitol Hill, asking every member of Congress to “Finish Strong For Veterans” by passing H.R. 4057.
Unfortunately, some critics still thought H.R. 4057 did not go far enough in protecting student-veterans, and that the concept would not pass muster in the Senate. But as days ticked off on the legislative calendar, it became clear to many in the Senate that more comprehensive legislative packages presented insurmountable administrative hurdles for schools and could have unintended consequences for student-veterans attending affected institutions.
The VFW, SVA and Legion long held that the simplicity behind H.R. 4057’s consumer information provisions would cause minimal collateral damage in higher education, meaning the bill could prove to be a game-changer, if implemented properly.
To the VFW, H.R. 4057 is about oversight. It reinforces many of the provisions of Executive Order #13607 and allows Congress to send VA back to the drawing board, should they get it wrong, similar to oversight on the veterans’ caregiver bill two years ago and the military’s transition assistance program, or TAP, redesign today.
The VFW understands that H.R. 4057 is not a “silver bullet” solution to improving consumer information. Should the House clear H.R. 4057 and the president sign it into law, that’s when the hard work will start. Arming student-veterans with quality information before choosing a school will take a concerted effort from VA, Congress, the military, higher education and the veterans’ community.
In 2013, your VFW will continue to work with VA and the Pentagon to ensure the new TAP offers quality information to transitioning service members. We will also continue to work with VA on improving the GI Bill Web site, offering consumer resources in the VONAPP online application, and streamlining educational counseling available to all GI Bill-eligible veterans. Fortunately, H.R. 4057 will give the VFW, Congress and the veterans’ community the leverage to roll up our sleeves to make sure our veterans get everything they have earned from the Post-9/11 GI Bill.