By Will Hubbard

The following op-ed was published in The Ripon Society.

It’s time to fulfill America’s promise to our veterans

They finally found John Gibson, a Georgia Congressman, after a frantic statewide search. The year was 1944, and Rep. Gibson was to be the tie-breaking vote to pass the “G.I. Bill of Rights,” as they were calling it in Congress.  

At the time, he had been back home for several weeks to recover from an illness. Despite his poor health, it became a mad dash amidst a terrible thunderstorm to find and return the Congressman to the Capitol to cast his crucial vote, which he finally did with barely hours to spare. 

Rep. Gibson’s vote helped bring into being the post-World War II G.I. Bill. It represented a covenant between the American people and its veterans – a promise that veterans would not be left to beg for reasonable opportunities to reintegrate into our society as their predecessors of World War I’s “Bonus Army” had to do. 

Without a doubt, America’s promise to veterans turned out to be one of the most successful national investments in American history and is widely regarded by economists as a major driver in the growth of the American middle class following WWII. 

A shocking six of the 10 schools that received the most G.I. Bill funds from 2009-2017 had been subject to law enforcement action. 

The G.I. Bill fostered the prosperity of millions of Americans, providing for the education of 14 future Nobel laureates, two dozen Pulitzer Prize winners, three Supreme Court Justices, three presidents of the United States, and hundreds of thousands of skilled professionals. Key to this success were several prominent veterans’ organizations – notably The American Legion – which had championed this unprecedented package of veteran readjustment benefits. 

Unfortunately, one of the of the lesser-known drawbacks of the original G.I. Bill was the shocking abundance of “fly-by-night” schools; fraudsters sought quick fortunes by convincing veterans to spend their G.I. Bill benefits at hollow programs. Converting America’s promise of a better life into promises of “a free TV” or other enticements, these scams lured thousands of veterans into worthless degrees from diploma-mills. 

Today’s generation of veterans also benefits from America’s promise with the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, authorized by Congress in 2008 to provide education for those serving in the Post-9/11 Era. But history repeats. Just as predatory schools targeted the original G.I. Bill, today they continue to scam many veterans out of their valuable education benefits. 

Over the past 14 years, several major college chains with a large number of G.I. Bill recipients have been subject to law enforcement action.  Some of these have even shut down unexpectedly, leaving their students scrambling. A shocking six of the 10 schools that received the most G.I. Bill funds from 2009-2017 had been subject to law enforcement action. 

And worse yet, many of the schools that receive the most G.I. Bill dollars are also the ones who spend the least amount of those dollars on the actual education of their students. In fact, seven of the top 10 G.I. Bill schools that received the most G.I. Bill funds from 2009-2017 spent less than one-third of tuition and fees on instruction in 2017. 

And this summer, one school was cut off from the G.I. Bill after the FBI raided several locations. Many of the former students described the school as being a bona fide “cult.” But when a veteran applies to use their G.I. Bill, their logical assumption is they’ll be spending their hard-earned benefits at a program that will deliver a valuable education. So, where is the disconnect? 

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs acceptance of a college for the G.I. Bill conveys an implied “stamp of approval.” This approval carries major significance to veterans, because for many veterans the G.I. Bill is their ticket to generational economic mobility. No matter where someone starts in life, an honorable tour in the U.S. military unlocks access to what most other Americans could only dream of: fully funded tuition and fees, a book stipend, and a housing allowance. 

Seven of the top 10 G.I. Bill schools that received the most G.I. Bill funds from 2009-2017 spent less than one-third of tuition and fees on instruction in 2017.

While the specifics of the G.I. Bill program have varied over the generations, the promise has remained the same – the opportunity of higher education and the chance at a successful civilian career with higher income trajectory. Consider for a moment the experience of the typical service member transitioning from the military – the vast majority of those who serve do one tour of four years in the enlisted ranks, often in a role in the military that doesn’t represent their long-term career goals, and most are the first in their family to attend college. 

For many transitioning veterans, the desire to execute a career pivot makes college an obvious choice. But veterans who have earned the G.I. Bill are bombarded with marketing and advertisements from schools eager to tap into veterans’ precious G.I. Bill benefits – and too many of those schools have lied to veterans to get their G.I. Bill funds, according to federal and state law enforcement action. How are veterans – especially first-generation students – supposed to tap into America’s promise if they are being targeted by fraudsters? 

As a country, it’s up to us to provide unhindered access to the tools veterans need to successfully transition into a civilian career. Imagine what it would be like if – no matter where a veteran decided to go to college – they could count on that school being a quality institution with a track record of solid outcomes. This is why the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs must maintain reasonable standards of quality, and also why Congress should establish higher expectations. 

We owe it to all veterans to deliver on America’s promise with an education befitting of veterans’ selfless service to our nation. The time to expect more for the G.I. Bill is now. 

Will Hubbard, a Marine Corps veteran, is vice president for Veterans and Military Policy at Veterans Education Success, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the protection of the integrity of the G.I. Bill and other federal, postsecondary education programs.