UPDATE, Sept. 22, 2015: This story updates with new information on proposed legislation.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has vowed to increase scrutiny of unaccredited schools that received federal funds through the GI Bill and to review state criteria that allow such schools to benefit financially from the country’s largest educational program for military veterans.
The move came in response to an investigation by Reveal, which found that as many as 2,000 unaccredited institutions – including schools that teach blackjack, dog grooming and masturbation – have received GI Bill funds at a cost of more than $260 million since 2009.
Compliance reviews have been performed on three of the schools highlighted in Reveal’s July investigation: the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco, Vitality College of Healing Arts near San Diego and Christ for the Nations Institute in Dallas. The VA said a fourth school, the Oklahoma Baptist College and Institute, was not reviewed because no VA beneficiaries had been enrolled in “several years.”
Christina Mulka, a spokeswoman for Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said the senator would press the VA to report back on what it found during those reviews.
But even as the agency tries to assure elected officials that it will do more, its undersecretary for benefits, Allison Hickey, has suggested that the VA’s authority could be limited.
“There is no legal basis to refuse to approve or to disapprove a previously approved program solely on its non-accredited status,” Hickey wrote in a Sept. 4 letter to Durbin.
The group said the story had exposed “a number of educationally questionable, and in some instances morally repugnant, institutions that have inexplicably received VA education benefits.” They said that the VA’s oversight was especially needed to protect taxpayer money and the country’s military veterans from “unscrupulous entities.”
Hickey responded in her letter saying the VA is taking several actions, including increasing its focus on unaccredited schools during the next round of compliance surveys in 2016 and reviewing the criteria states use to evaluate course offerings and the “good reputation and character” of administrators, instructors, directors and owners of a school.
But she noted that the VA “is prohibited, by law, from exercising any supervision or control over the activities of the SAAs, except during the annual SAA performance evaluations,” referring to the state approving agencies that conduct about 5,000 compliance surveys every year and allow schools onto the list of institutions eligible for GI Bill funds.
During a hearing convened last week by the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, however, Joseph Wescott, legislative director of the National Association of State Approving Agencies, underscored the challenges its member agencies face.
“The current statutory requirements for VA to conduct compliance surveys represent an almost impossible mission, given present resources,” Wescott said.