January 30, 2014

Feds Launch Online Complaint Portal for Vets Abused By For-Profit Colleges


Federal agencies have this morning launched a new online complaint system where veterans, service members, and their families can report on problems with colleges and universities receiving federal education aid. As numerous investigations have revealed and President Obama has noted, for-profit colleges have engaged in widespread abuses of vets and military families. The new complaint system follows from the President’s April 2012 executive order requiring stronger protections for veterans against deceptive recruiting and other misconduct by educational institutions.  The Departments of Education and Justice, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and the Federal Trade Commission are all part of the new system, along with the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense. Veterans can file complaints here and service members here.

I’m hopeful that the new portal will be a major improvement over existing complaint channels, which have been confusing, and where complaints have often piled up without action. I’m hopeful in part because federal and state enforcement agencies in the past year have awoken to the abuses of the for-profit college industry and are moving ahead with major investigations.  Legitimate complaints filed on the military portal with be forwarded to the FTC’s Consumer Sentinel Network, which can be accessed by over 650 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.

I wonder whether the new system can be adapted promptly for use by all victims of predatory for-profit colleges. While veterans have been a particular target for abuses, and deserve strong support and protection because of their service, educational opportunity and taxpayer protection would be enhanced if other victims –single mothers, immigrants, and others struggling to build better lives — also had access to a better complaint system. The Department of Education, which dispenses the vast majority of federal education aid (and provides a quarter of its aid, some $32 billion annually, to for-profit colleges), lags far behind in providing adequate means to collect, review, and investigate complaints. The links from the new portal and supporting materials for students to directly complain to the Department of Education go to an email address, not a portal site, or to the Department’s homepage — not helpful at all.

Here’s the press release:

Federal Agencies Partner to Protect Veterans, Service Members and their Families Using GI Bill Education Benefits

New Online Complaint System Empowers Students, Strengthens Enforcement

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Departments of Veterans Affairs, Defense, Education and Justice, along with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission announced today the launch of a new online complaint system designed to collect feedback from veterans, service members and their families who are experiencing problems with educational institutions receiving funding from Federal military and veterans educational benefits programs, including benefits programs provided by the Post-9/11 GI Bill and the DoD Military Tuition Assistance Program. 

The centralized online reporting system is designed for veterans, service members and eligible dependents to report negative experiences with educational institutions; and gives the federal government the information needed to identify and address unfair, deceptive, and misleading practices and ensure high quality academic and student support services are available for veterans, service members, and their families.

“The online complaint system empowers veterans and their dependents and provides them a direct line to VA and our partner agencies,” said Allison A. Hickey, Under Secretary for Benefits, Department of Veterans Affairs. “The feedback we receive from veterans, service members and their families will help us strengthen enforcement of the ‘Principles of Excellence’ for institutions of higher learning serving veterans and their families to ensure students are receiving the education benefits they have earned and deserve.”

“Our service members and their families now have an easier and efficient way to provide feedback on their civilian educational experiences, which will ensure we have the right information to identify and address any negative practices,” said Jessica Wright, Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness.

Students can submit a complaint if they believe their school is failing to follow the Principles of Excellence, (i.e. unfair recruiting practices, credit transfer or change in degree requirements) through the centralized online reporting system accessed via the Department of Defense and GI Bill websites. When feedback is received, agencies will contact the school on behalf of the student and work toward a resolution. Complaints and their resolution will be forwarded to the Federal Trade Commission Consumer Sentinel Network, accessible by over 650 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies for use in enhancing and coordinating law enforcement investigations.

Executive Order 13607, signed April 27, 2012, addresses reports of unfair, deceptive or misleading behavior toward veterans, service members and their families pursuing higher education and directs agencies to establish, implement and promote compliance with “Principles of Excellence” for educational institutions receiving funding from Federal military and veterans educational benefits programs  for America’s veterans, service members and eligible dependents, including preventing abusive and deceptive recruiting practices. The new online complaint system is one of a range of tools being implemented by the federal government to ensure that service members, veterans and eligible dependents have access to meaningful information about the cost and quality of educational institutions.