Blog: More Bureaucracy to Police Military Funds

By Kevin Kuzma, Editor

He’s a huckster, never taken to task for what he says. Right or wrong, he talks — and the talk gets repeated, whether he’s serving as chairman of a Senate committee or merely testifying before one.

The truth never concerns Senator Tom Harkin (D — Iowa) much, which is odd since that’s exactly what he claims to be selling. He’s concerned that students attending for-profit schools are going to incur "mountains of debt" in exchange for a valueless education. As of yesterday, he’s concerned about the military and veterans who enroll in for-profit institutions.

Yesterday, the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs subcommittee on federal financial management, government information, federal services and international security held a hearing that examined military tuition aid to for-profit colleges. The hearing was set in particular to explore the increase in federal tuition aid that is being spent by military and veteran students who enroll at for-profit schools.

The for-profit sector began starring in Senate hearings last year when Harkin (D-Iowa) presented his committee’s investigative work into for-profit schools’ marketing and recruitment practices. Those hearings, of course, diverted into for-profit industry slander and resulted n at least one lawsuit – the Government Accountability Office (GAO) coming under fire for its mystery shopping of for-profits and the related report that was later amended to cast the industry in much more positive light.

A study compiled by the GAO was the basis for yesterday’s hearing, too. And, Harkin was present as well, albeit in a more limited role as witness. The resident naysayer of for-profits was granted another speaking opportunity to cut down the sector. His attempts this time were to paint a picture of for-profits preying on military vets who return from war or long stints in the services in hopes of bettering their lives through education, only to be hoodwinked with a poor education and loads of student debt.

According the GAO’s report, “in fiscal year 2009, the Department of Defense’s (DOD) Military Tuition Assistance (TA) Program provided $517 million in tuition assistance to approximately 377,000 service members.” The GAO was asked to report on the DOD’s oversight of schools receiving TA funds, and the extent to which DOD coordinates with accrediting agencies and the Department of Education in its oversight activities.

While carrying out its research, the GAO made site visits to selected military education centers and interviewed officials from DOD, its contractors, the DOE, accrediting agencies, and postsecondary institutions. They found that oversight was slight. And, with the recent vilifying of for-profits on Capitol Hill, that’s simply not acceptable.

More specifically, the GAO recommended that the DOD institute a systematic risk-based oversight approach, push for increased accountability in its education quality review process, and develop a centralized system to track complaints.

In essence, the recommendation was more bureaucracy. I suppose when you work with and deal in bureaucracy, it’s very easy to recommend that as a solution. I wonder if the DOD needed this study to reach the conclusions that the GAO reached. In Washington, it should be plain enough now to see where the bureaucracy is lacking. Government agencies should be able to review one another and judge when there are only a few layers of bureaucracy in place, a few more can be added.

During his testimony, Harkin suggested that “as guardians of our troops” the government should consider some questions, including “are (military students) being aggressively recruited to?” Or were they “enrolling in these (for-profit) schools and dropping out in a year?”

At this point, any regulatory conversation involving Harkin or the GAO seems like a farce – and that’s too bad given that Sen. Tom Caper (D – Delaware) could possibly be trying to take a real look at this issue, which would be the antithesis to the Harkin’s style.

What Harkin is selling now is real concern for America’s military students. He’s concerned for their well being, and yet he never veers the discussion to why these types of learners choose for-profit education in the first place. No one challenges him on the school’s flexibility, career-specific training, externships, career services, connections with employment opportunities, and so on.

Career politicians have to appear to make a difference now and then. What can be more popular to a Midwestern constituency than students and vets? Harkin needs to step aside this deep into the “gainful employment” rule debate with the final rule language pending, with lawsuits galore being filed, and 13 other rules set to come online. Rather than buying his product, there are other areas where the Department of Education and the current administration could be directing their regulatory efforts that can make a positive impact, not undermine an industry.

Spring-time is coming to Iowa. There’s no better time for a Senator to head back home to tend to his crop.

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