Returning military veterans who are thinking of going back to school at a for-profit institution have a new friend in the University of San Diego School of Law.
USD officials recently unveiled their Initiative to Protect Student Veterans, a program aimed at helping vets avoid being the victims of fraud and predatory lending.
"There's a lot of problems [with for-profit schools]," said retired Col. Patrick J. Uetz, the director of the Initiative to Protect Student Veterans. "There are issues from misrepresentation to sometimes just obfuscation; not providing information that one wishes to have to make a decision."
The centerpiece of the initiative is a Veterans Legal Clinic, which provides free legal assistance to veterans who are engaged in disputes with for-profit institutions over the use of GI Bill funds and predatory lending.
The legal clinic is staffed by upper division law students, helping to identify potential claims as well as representing student veterans in litigation, arbitration and other forms of alternative dispute resolution.
"Often these for-profit education companies use hard-sell tactics and then present veterans with extensive enrollment agreements containing heavy legalese that no lay person would understand,” said Robert Muth, supervising attorney of the Veterans Legal Clinic. “One of our goals is to get information to those student veterans before they sign anything and walk them through it, so they know what they’re agreeing to before signing away their GI benefits.”
The clinic was initially launched last August, but the school held the recent unveiling to showcase the initiative and inform local veterans of the resources available to them.
The clinic currently has 17 clients but the need is likely much greater. Getting veterans to enroll in the program is a challenge, according to Uetz.
"Military personnel can't admit we're victims of anything," Uetz said. "Trying to convince some student veterans to talk to us about it is difficult."
USD is collaborating with local and regional military and veterans organizations to help get the word out. USD clinic outreach coordinator Patty O’Deane also is helping to coordinate community presentations, as well as teach and write curriculum for the clinic’s coursework.
Unlike the school’s other legal clinics, the Veterans Clinic does not have a low-income requirement and can assist people outside of San Diego County.
USD's Initiative to Protect Student Veterans is also focused on research and advocacy, including encouraging legislators to craft new regulations.
Uetz said he'd most like to see changes to how GI Bill funds are classified.
In order to receive federal funding, for-profit institutions must demonstrate that at least 10 percent of their revenue is derived from non-federal student aid.
The problem, Uetz said, is that the GI Bill, which is funded through federal money, can be counted toward the 10 percent non-federal aid because it's not classified under the Title IV education funds.
This makes veterans, who use the GI Bill, an attractive target for for-profit schools.
"For every dollar of GI Bill money [they receive], that opens up their eligibility for $9 of Title IV federal student aid," Uetz said.
Uetz also would like to see the government prohibit federal dollars from being used for marketing. He said approximately 20 percent of federal revenue is currently being used for marketing.
The Initiative to Protect Student Veterans has a great advocate in USD professor Robert Fellmeth, who has spent time in Washington, D.C. and was one of consumer advocate Ralph Nader's original “Nader’s Raiders."
Fellmeth is responsible for efforts on both the state and national level to raise awareness of the issues related to veterans’ education and to propose changes in current law to protect future abuses.