Thousands of veterans have filed formal complaints against colleges alleging a range of problems including deceptive marketing, fraud and poor education, but the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has completed a review of only 324 of them, according to an internal agency document obtained by The Center for Investigative Reporting.
The VA launched an online complaint system in January amid growing concern about the exploitation of veterans by for-profit colleges, which have received billions of taxpayer dollars.
Since then, the agency says, it has logged nearly 2,400 complaints but has resolved fewer than 15 percent of them, a track record that veterans advocates called unacceptable. After CIR began asking questions about the data this week, the VA posted it online.
“Timeliness is something that veterans deserve,” said Chris Neiweem, a former Army sergeant and legislative associate with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “We need to ensure that feedback from veterans doesn’t just end up on the shelf.”
The four schools that have prompted the most investigations are large, publically traded, for-profit college chains. But because so few cases have been closed, it’s impossible to tell whether the schools with the most complaints listed are those with the biggest problems.
Overall, about 40 percent of the complaints the VA reviewed were leveled against for-profit colleges, while another 40 percent were lodged against public schools. The rest were against private nonprofit schools, flight schools and on-the-job training programs.
Rob Worley, the head of the VA’s education service, said his agency is actively working through the backlogged complaints. It is a multistep process, he said, which starts with the students’ grievances being forwarded to their respective schools.
The veteran, and the VA, must then wait for the college to respond.
“We don’t really investigate,” Worley said. “We hope that the school will work directly with the veteran to resolve the issue.”
Beyond the numbers, the data reviewed by CIR provides little insight into the problems veterans face when they try to use their GI Bill benefits. For instance, it fails to indicate whether veterans uncovered serious violations.
To answer those questions, CIR filed a Freedom of Information Act request in June, asking for copies of all complaints brought by veterans who say colleges have exploited their GI Bill education benefits.
Three months later, the VA denied that request, saying detailed information about student complaints would be contained in an in-depth report to be published in October. That report has not materialized, leaving members of Congress increasingly testy.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla. – chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs – demanded the agency release more details about what it has found.
“Making student complaints and GI Bill feedback data available to the public is critically important to helping veterans make good choices about where to use their earned VA education benefits,” Miller said Tuesday, “and the department owes it to American veterans to publicly release this data in short order.”
Worley, the agency’s education director, declined to say when the report would be available, saying only that the VA was “behind in producing the report.”