For Immediate Release     

Contacts:

Carrie Wofford, President | carrie@vetsedsuccess.org (202) 422-6338

Veterans Education Success Responds to VA’s Decision to Approve Ashford University for GI Bill Funds

Reaction by President Wofford highlights VA’s approval of a school well-known for predatory recruitment practices and deceiving military-connected students.

Washington, D.C. – On February 14, 2020, VA approved a well-known predatory school engaged in rampant deception of veterans – Ashford University – for GI Bill. Despite information provided to VA regarding predatory recruitment and false advertising by Ashford University – including a lawsuit by the California Attorney General, reporting by Ashford employee whistleblowers, an alarming pattern of complaints by veterans, and a series of federal and state law enforcement actions – a majority of Ashford’s degree programs remain approved for the GI Bill.

American taxpayers will continue to foot the bill for a school that has continued to provide poor outcomes.  Ashford is the 6th largest recipient of GI Bill funding at $27,134,730 in FY 2018.  Only 8% of full-time students who started college at Ashford graduate within six years. These students leave with federal student loan debt, depending on their field of study, between $27,308 and $48,125. Student veterans deserve better than this.

In approving Ashford, VA’s leadership is continuing to ignore the calls from 3 dozen veterans and military service organizations for VA to start following 38 USC 3696, which prohibits VA from approving GI Bill to schools that engage in deceptive advertising or recruiting – in letters in 2019 and in 2016.  VA has yet  to implement 38 USC 3696, as documented in our 2019 report, VA Still Not Enforcing 1974 Ban on Schools that Engage in Deceptive Advertising and Recruiting and in a 2016 Yale Law School report.  Additionally, in a recent report, the VA Inspector General reported VA’s failure to follow the law is partly to blame for what the Inspector General estimates will cost $2.3 billion in improper GI Bill payments to ineligible schools over the next 5 years if VA does not improve oversight.

While it approved 71 Ashford programs for GI Bill, VA did disapprove 20 of Ashford’s programs – one that is already in a teach-out phase (closing down), three that appeared to not be legitimate programs, and sixteen that violated the 2016 Career Ready Student Veterans Act (sec. 409 of P.L. 114-315 (Dec. 2016)), which prohibits VA from paying for programs in licensed occupations that do not leave the student eligible for the license (such as electrician, nursing, or law schools from which a graduate is not eligible to sit for the licensing exam).  Wasting veterans’ time at fake nursing schools and the like is a problem we exposed in our report, The GI Bill Pays for Degrees That Do Not Lead to a Job and in our 2018 report, Despite a 2016 Statute, the GI Bill Still Pays for Degrees That Do Not Lead to a Job. We call on VA and other State Approving Agencies to follow the law and also disapprove programs that leave students ineligible for licensure in the field they are studying.

Now it’s time for Congress to act where VA will not on behalf of student veterans. 

We are thankful to the U.S. House of Representatives for unanimously passing HR 4625, the “Protect the GI Bill Act of 2019,” and we look forward to its passage in the Senate as well. This important legislation, supported by 42 military and veteran service organizations, is a common-sense bipartisan solution that addresses some of the challenges we see in the continued approval of predatory schools such as Ashford. It will strengthen protections and empower VA to more proactively intervene to protect veterans in similar situations. Most critically it will:

  • Require VA and State approving agencies to act, within a strict timeline, on any school misrepresentations to students, to ensure VA’s compliance with 38 USC 3696.
  • Ensure VA and State approving agencies are able to take action and protect student veterans when schools are in trouble with their accreditors.

“It is outrageous that VA continues to violate federal law in order to help for-profit colleges, instead of protecting student veterans.  Veterans have legal rights to be protected from fraud and VA has a legal obligation to cut off GI Bill to schools that defraud veterans – but VA keeps refusing to do so,” said Veterans Education Success President Carrie Wofford.

“We are glad, at least, that VA followed the 2016 Career Ready Student Veterans Act and disapproved 20 Ashford programs that did not lead to careers in those fields.  Our 2018 report documented that VA had failed to follow that law.  Now we need VA and the State approving agencies to follow suit and disapprove all programs that violate the Career Ready Student Veterans Act. It’s so unfair to veterans to have the GI Bill stamp of approval on fake nursing schools, fake law schools, fake electrician schools, and the like.”

Background

All colleges approved for GI Bill must obtain state approval by the state in which the college is headquartered.  Ashford’s status for GI Bill approval has been uncertain since 2016 when it lost its Iowa approval when it shuttered its Iowa campus. (Ashford sued Iowa to keep its Iowa approval, lost in 2017).  Unable to obtain California approval, Ashford attempted to deceive VA by claiming its headquarters had shifted to a small, temporary, unoccupied rental space in Arizona – as exposed by the Chronicle of Higher Education and our report.  When VA learned of this deception in Nov. 2017, VA gave Ashford 60 days to obtain California’s approval.  California again declined to act on Ashford’s application. Thereafter, even without proper state approval, VA kept the GI Bill funds flowing to Ashford, in violation of 38 USC 3672(a).  In September 2019, after not extending its contract with California, VA took over as the California State Approving Agency, thereby garnering authority over Ashford’s application for recognition by California.

Under federal law, we believe VA should have disapproved Ashford entirely, as we outlined in our letter to VA in November.

  • Under 38 USC 3696, VA may not approve GI Bill funds to “an institution which utilizes advertising, sales, or enrollment practices of any type which are erroneous, deceptive, or misleading either by actual statement, omission, or intimation.” 
    • VA has been made aware that Ashford engaged in deceptive and misleading advertising and recruitment, as documented by:
      • The California Attorney General’s lawsuit against Ashford for deceptive recruiting, alleging that sales representatives mislead prospective students with false promises and faulty information about financial aid, the cost of attendance, transferability of credits into and out of the school, and the ability of the school to prepare students for their promised careers.  The lawsuit points out that Ashford’s own internal audits found its admissions counselors engage in tens of thousands of misrepresentations each year, and that no policy is in place to ensure that Ashford corrects misrepresentations, and that Ashford engages in aggressive and illegal practices to collect student debts, which result from its own employees’ misrepresentations.
      • Whistleblowers who have come forward, including Eric Dean, a longtime Ashford military recruiter, who testified before the House Veterans Affairs Committee (April 24, 2019), was interviewed by NBC News, and spoke at a California government press conference (Feb. 27, 2019).  Other whistleblowers who asked to speak with VA include a six-year corporate director of Ashford’s compliance department, who alleges that, during his years at Ashford, he documented “a voluminous record of compliance infractions” involving “misrepresentations” by enrollment advisors.
      • The pattern in student veteran complaints filed with VA. Our organization alone has received more than 100 student veteran complaints about Ashford, summarized here and described in more detail here.
      • A litany of federal and state law enforcement concern about consumer protection violations, outlined in our report, including a 2015 settlement of $31.5 million with the US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for deceiving students into taking out private loans that cost more than advertised, and a 2014 settlement of $7.25 million with the Iowa Attorney General for violations of Iowa’s consumer protection laws.
  • Under 38 USC 3683(c), VA is obligated to cut off GI Bill funds to institutions about which VA employees have a conflict of interest.  VA employees do have a conflict of interest with Ashford, as documented by this response to our FOIA request.
  • Other relevant facts:
    • In May 2019, Washington State forbade Ashford from recruiting Washington state students.
    • According to College Scorecard data in October 2019, only 25% of full-time, first-time undergraduates return to Ashford University after their first year at the school, and only 8% of full-time students who started college at Ashford graduate within six years. Among full-time and part-time students, and including transfers, only 28% of students graduate within eight years of entering Ashford University, while 41% of students withdraw and 31% transfer. Ten years after entering Ashford University, the median earnings of students who had received federal financial aid is $41,200. Within three years of leaving Ashford University, only 25% of student borrowers have paid anything towards the principal balance on their federal loans.  According to the Education Department’s IPEDS database, for 2016, Ashford had 4,702 students in default on their loans and 34,163 in repayment – for a default rate of 13.7%.
    • Ashford’s enrollment trends and outcomes are documented here.

You can read VA’s letter to Ashford here.

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About Veterans Education Success

Veterans Education Success is a veteran advocacy organization whose mission is to advance higher education success for veterans, service members, and military families, and to protect the integrity and promise of the GI Bill and other federal education programs. The organization offers free legal services, advice, and college and career counseling to servicemembers, veterans, their survivors, and families using federal education benefits – and helps them participate in their democracy by engaging with policymakers. Veterans Education Success also provides policy expertise to federal and state policymakers, and conducts non-partisan research on issues of concern to student veterans, including student outcomes and debt levels. Additional information is available at www.vetsedsuccess.org.