US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions

Chairmen Harkin, Carper Urge Veteran Affairs Department to Improve GI Bill Comparison Tool

Monday, March 03, 2014

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, and Tom Carper (D-DE), Chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, have sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) urging additional improvements to the agency’s GI Bill Comparison Tool. In the letter, sent Thursday evening, the senators commend the VA for launching the website, but recommend that the agency work with its partners—the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)—to make several changes to improve the tool’s effectiveness and address several limitations.

“The website is an important first step in providing veterans with targeted information to help them reach their educational goals and find meaningful employment,” wrote the chairmen. “While the website certainly provides very useful information, we believe that improvements could be made to further advance the website’s goals.”

Specifically, the senators suggest that the VA: add schools’ actual tuition and fees, and the percentage of those tuition and fees covered by Post-9/11 benefits; quickly develop and implement an automated system to more efficiently share and maintain data; clarify schools’ outcome measures; mention schools’ accreditation status; describe any limitations schools may place on veterans’ eligibility for the Yellow Ribbon program; and include a tool developed by the Federal Trade Commission that helps servicemembers choose a college after military service.

The recently launched GI Bill Comparison tool is a collaborative effort between the VA and ED that brings together information from over 17 different online sources and three federal agencies to provide veterans, service members and eligible dependents key insights into college affordability and value so they can choose the best education program to meet their needs.

The GI Bill Comparison Tool is one piece of a series of resources that the VA will introduce in response to President Obama’s Executive Order 13607, which directs agencies to implement and promote "Principles of Excellence" for education institutions that interact with veterans, servicemembers, and their families. Additionally, the Executive Order requires that the VA ensures beneficiaries have the information they need to make informed choices about VA education benefits and approved programs.

A copy of the letter follows.

February 27, 2014

Curtis L. Coy
Deputy Under Secretary, Office of Economic Opportunity
Department of Veterans Affairs
Washington, D.C., 20420

 Dear Mr. Coy:

 We are writing to congratulate you on the very recent launch of the new GI Bill Comparison Tool website by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) with assistance from the Education Department (ED).  VA launched the new website with the twin goals of (1) helping veterans calculate their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, and (2) providing key metrics to allow veterans to compare colleges, universities, and other education and training programs. The website represents a commitment on the part of the two departments to hold schools accountable by reporting outcome measures, such as graduation rates, that gauge veterans’ success—the goal articulated in the President’s April 2012 Executive Order titled: Principles of Excellence for Educational Institutions Serving Service Members, Veterans, Spouses, and Other Family Members. The website is an important first step in providing veterans with targeted information to help them reach their educational goals and find meaningful employment.

While the website certainly provides very useful information, we believe that improvements could be made to further advance the website’s goals.  We provide below a few suggestions on changes we believe would improve the website.  The following examples are meant to be illustrative and not exhaustive of the potential for website enhancements.

 Limitations


· Tuition and fees. The information on the website labeled tuition and fees instead displays the amount of a veteran’s Post-9/11 benefit based on cumulative, active-duty service.  Adding schools’ actual tuition and fees and the percentage of those tuition and fees covered by Post-9/11 benefits would help veterans make informed decisions about how much of the charges their benefits would cover.

· Yellow Ribbon program. The website shows whether schools participate in the Yellow Ribbon program, a program designed to help bridge the gap between tuition and GI Bill coverage, but does not describe any limitations schools may place on veterans’ eligibility for such assistance. The website should briefly characterize any limitations.

· School outcome measures. The website’s outcome data and its presentation can be misleading and confusing to veterans using the site. For example, the website lists the median debt of all students at an institution, including those who never graduated. By including dropouts in the metric, and not just completers, a school with low completion and retention rates can appear less expensive than a school with high retention and graduation rates.

The website also rates each school on a scale of low, medium, or high in three areas—graduation, loan default, and median borrowing—but does not do an adequate job of explaining these three categories or their relevance in making comparisons between institutions. The ratings are based on thresholds established by ED for comparing similar types of schools, such as schools that primarily offer bachelor’s degrees to other 4-year schools or associate degrees to other 2-year schools; as a result, the threshold for low, medium, or high differs for each type of school. For example, median borrowing of $11,000 is rated low for a bachelor’s program at a 4-year school but high at a school that offers a 2-year associate degree. Veterans using the website are likely to conclude that the ratings are inconsistent because there is no explanation of the differences in the school-type thresholds and the website does not allow a veteran to first select a type of school to make comparisons. We urge VA to work with stakeholders to ensure that the website is as user friendly as possible and provides apples-to-apples comparisons for veterans.

· Accreditation.  Accreditation is the principal means by which colleges, universities and programs assure quality to prospective students and the public. Institutional accreditation allows students to use their federal financial aid eligibility if needed and can determine whether or not students will be able to transfer their credits from one institution to another. Programmatic accreditation can determine whether or not a student is able to obtain employment in a particular field of study, such as healthcare or law.  Currently, the Comparison Tool makes no mention of accreditation.  We urge VA to add a disclosure within the Comparison Tool to inform veterans about the type of accreditation, if any, an institution has obtained, and notify them that some programs require separate programmatic accreditation. We also urge the VA to encourage veterans to check with schools about the programmatic accreditation status of the curricula they are interested in pursuing.

Veteran Specific Information

· Choosing a School. In addition to comparing schools, the website contains links to other websites on topics ranging from careers and employment to choosing a school. While the latter link contains useful information, it would benefit from inclusion of a tool developed by the Federal Trade Commission that poses eight questions to ask when choosing a college after military service.

· School outcome measures. The graduation, default, and median debt indicators reported on the website are not veteran specific. Improved data sharing by ED and VA are critical for providing more veteran specific data on the website. We strongly encourage the VA to utilize ED’s National Student Loan Data System to obtain veteran specific default and debt data. In addition, ED and VA should collaborate on ways to ensure the integrity of school-reported graduation rates.

· Maintenance of data. Much of the information used on the website was developed manually by matching school names and addresses in the ED and VA databases. This was a laborious process.  In order for the website to continue to provide veterans with accurate and up-to-date information, the two departments must quickly develop and implement an automated system to more efficiently share data.

We realize that addressing the issues raised in this letter will require continued collaboration among DoD, ED, VA, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. We request that within 30 days of the date of this letter you provide us with your plans to address the issues highlighted in this letter, including an implementation timeframe.

With best personal regards we are,

Sincerely yours,

Thomas R. Carper, Chairman, Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs                                                     

Tom Harkin, Chairman, Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions

cc: Department of Education, Acting Under Secretary, Jamie Studley
Department of Defense, Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, Jessica L. Wright

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Hollister Petraeus, Assistant Director for Servicemember Affairs

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