WASHINGTON The debate over for-profit colleges that has provoked arguments in Congress for months is now seeping into the presidential race.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney plans a campaign stop Sunday at the for-profit NASCAR Technical Institute outside Charlotte a show of support for an industry that has been hammered by Democrats in recent months.
Caught in the middle are the tens of thousands of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who want to finish their education and rejoin the workforce. Those veterans are turning heavily to for-profit institutions.
A recent Senate Democratic committee report found that eight of the top 10 colleges receiving post-9/11 GI Bill money from the Department of Veterans Affairs are for-profit institutions.
The report found that taxpayers spent $32 billion last year on the industry. Fifteen of the largest for-profit colleges received 86 percent of their revenues from federal student aid programs, according to the report, issued by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.
The issue is playing out in military-heavy states such as North Carolina, California, and Texas.
Theyre really preyed upon by some of these schools, said retired Marine Col. Robert Songer, the former director of education services at Camp Lejeune. By the time they came to me it was usually too late. ... The schools sign them up for a Pell Grant (and) one, sometimes two student loans.
The schools have a strong incentive to enroll service members and veterans, in large part because of the 90/10 rule, which puts a 90 percent cap on the amount of annual revenue a for-profit college may receive from federal student-aid programs. But veterans and military benefits dont count toward that 90 percent.
And so, critics say, service members become valuable students for some for-profit colleges whose revenues consistently bump against the cap.
The for-profit industrys trade group, the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, says military and veteran students have a right to choose the education that best meets their learning styles and the need for a flexible schedule.
The reason we succeed is because veterans tell veterans, This was really good for me and it would be really good for you, said executive director Steve Gunderson.
Howard Toller, a 27-year-old Iraq war Army veteran, admits the TV commercials lured him to ITT Technical Institute in Cary, with former students extolling state-of-the-art training, flexible class schedules and easy-to-find jobs.
It wasnt until after the veteran sunk much of his post-9/11 GI Bill benefits into the for-profit college that he learned the institution spends more money on marketing than instruction and that less than half of the students finish their associate degree.
It was a dog-and-pony show, Toller said.
They (the ads) made me think that these guys have a good program. Its not good at all. Nobody talked about how the credits are not transferrable.
In response to e-mailed questions, ITT spokeswoman Lauren Littlefield said that all students are told it's unlikely that credits will be transferred, and that the information also is in the schools catalog.
Burr, Hagan in conflict
North Carolinas two U.S. senators have staked out opposite sides of the debate.
Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, a member of the education committee, has been one of the most active voices against the for-profit college industry, introducing legislation that would prohibit all colleges from using taxpayer money on marketing, advertising and recruitment.
Many of the for-profits colleges are using this money for anything but helping students succeed, she said.
Sen. Richard Burr, the top Republican on the Veterans Affairs Committee, has charged Democrats with launching an assault against the industry. For-profit institutions wouldnt flourish if there werent people who wanted the services, he said.
Burr acknowledged there are bad apples in the mix, but he said excessive government oversight is not the answer. And he pointed to the successful programs at Universal Technical Institute, a for-profit institution based in Tempe, Ariz., that runs the Charlotte-area NASCAR Technical Institute, where Romney is scheduled to speak Sunday.
UTI was treated more favorably by Harkins Senate committee report, which noted that the school spends far less on marketing than most for-profits and that half of the students receive their associates degrees or certificates.
But the report also noted that UTI received $24.9 million in post-9/11 GI benefits from 2009 to 2011, averaging $22,767 per veteran, compared with an average of $4,642 per veteran at public colleges.
Bill Odell, vice president of corporate communications for UTI, said the Senate committee tried to find anything negative it could on the school. He also said the committee cant argue with the schools 65 percent graduation rate and 85 percent employment rate.
Our students graduate from school, and they get employed, he said.
Vets: predatory practices
In January, Romney praised Full Sail University in Florida for increasing competition and helping hold down the cost of education.
The school is one of the most expensive colleges in America, according to the U.S. Department of Education. In April, President Barack Obama signed an executive order to help protect military families and veterans from deceptive recruiting by higher education institutions, particularly for-profit colleges, seeking their military benefits.
The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America last month launched a campaign warning new veterans and their spouses of predatory for-profit colleges that are targeting GI Bill benefits.
Not all the schools are bad, said Tom Tarantino, the groups chief policy officer, but he said there are pervasive bad practices across the industry that are not conducive to students finishing and getting a job.