Published Wednesday, July 25, 2012 | 12:43 p.m.
Updated Tuesday, July 31, 2012 | 10:12 a.m.
As about 100,000 soldiers return home from Iraq and Afghanistan during the next five years, federal agencies are hoping to leverage post-secondary education opportunities to help transition these veterans back to civilian life.
That was the message delivered by Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter, who is overseeing a broad effort to increase college access and affordability to all students – including military service members and veterans.
Speaking Wednesday in Las Vegas to hundreds of attendees at a Department of Defense symposium on education, Kanter outlined several initiatives undertaken by federal agencies to help current and former military members navigate higher-education options and avoid the pitfall of crushing student loan debt.
The post 9/11 GI Bill and other military tuition assistance programs have allowed 750,000 veterans and families to attend college since 2009, said Kanter, the third highest-ranking official at the education department. The federal government has invested $19 billion so far to help soldiers get the education they need to find viable career options once they return home, she said.
“We want all of our individuals to access post-secondary education,” Kanter said. “It’s an economic value, a social value and a moral value. It’s a value for the future of our democracy and, quite frankly, I see it as a matter of national security that we have the most highly-educated people in the world.”
However, many of these returning veterans have fallen prey to for-profit colleges using predatory recruiting practices to make money off of veterans using one-time grant funding from the GI Bill, said Holly Patraeus, wife of CIA director and retired Maj. Gen. David Patraeus, who helped introduce Kanter.
“We want to see our military personnel replicate what happened after World War II when service members came home, went to college on the GI Bill and became the engine that drove our economy to decades of success,” Holly Patraeus said. “But for that to happen, we need to make sure our service members are getting a valuable education at a reasonable price and are not being co-opted by expensive schools that are built on a model that sees them as dollar signs in uniform to be marketed to and then abandoned once they have brought the product.”
Earlier this summer, 22 state attorneys general – including Nevada’s Catherine Cortez Mastro – banded together to lobby Congress to limit the ability of for-profit colleges to sweet-talk veterans into subpar degree programs that churn out graduates who are far less competitive in the job market than their counterparts from private and public nonprofit institutions.
To complement these legal measures, the Department of Education – in connection with the recently-formed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau – on Monday released its final version of a financial aid “shopping sheet” to help students compare loan offers from different colleges and estimate student debt upon graduation.
This “Know Before You Owe" facts sheet makes clear the costs and responsibilities of student loans before students enroll, outlining total estimated costs of attendance, graduation rates and estimated monthly loan repayments upon graduation, Kanter said. It was an effort lauded last month by President Barack Obama when he visited UNLV.
“We see this not only as an economic or consumer protection issue, but really, it’s a moral issue,” Kanter said. “It’s our duty to make sure we give the information and provide the support to help students make good decisions.”
Colleges that have agreed to federal standards of serving veteran students will begin using this “shopping sheet” in the 2013-14 school year. The hope is that all 7,200 colleges and universities across the country would adopt this transparent tool, Kanter said.
Furthermore, the education department is working on releasing college “scorecards” by the end of this fall, Kanter said. These fact sheets would give students the ability to compare how well a college or university prepares its students for the workplace by outlining a school’s graduation rate, loan repayment rate, average loan default rate and average earnings, she said.
“We have too many students leaving college without the certificates or degrees they came there to get,” Kanter said, adding that 40 percent of first-generation college students don’t graduate. “We have too many dropouts.”
Although the education department has focused on improving educational opportunities for all students – such as simplifying the Free Application for Federal Student Aid forms and increasing Pell Grant funding – it has also worked on initiatives specially aimed to help veterans who are furthering their education, Kanter said.
Kanter said a new federal grant program helped open veteran student centers at 15 colleges in states with high military populations such as California, Washington and Florida. UNLV is opening its own veteran services office, unaffiliated from the federal program.
The education department also is working with other federal agencies, such as the Department of Labor and the Department of Defense, to translate skills learned in the military into actual credits that could be applied toward college degrees, Kanter said.
In addition – as part of an overall effort to hire 1 million new teachers between now and 2020 when Obama’s vision of a 60 percent college-going rate is to be accomplished – thousands of veterans are being trained to enter the teaching profession through the Troops to Teachers program, Kanter said.
Federal grants are paying for additional stipends and bonuses to attract veterans into becoming math and science teachers serving high minority populations in urban school districts, Kanter said. More than 11,000 veterans are now teaching as a result of the Troops to Teachers program, she said.
Finally, children of service members who have died during their service in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are receiving a $5,000 tuition credit toward their college education, Kanter said. The initiative, which started in 2011, applies to students in need who were 23 years of age or younger when their parents were killed in service.
“I can’t think of any initiative that’s more important that we can do as a nation than this,” Kanter said, in reference to helping veteran students. “We can’t do enough to help these populations realize their full potential.”
CORRECTION: This version corrects the number of colleges and universities across the United States. | (August 2, 2012)