WASHINGTON -- Return on investment is a hot concept inside the Beltway, with lawmakers pushing colleges to better demonstrate how they perform with public funds. But most of the policy action these days is on consumer protections for student veterans.
The ongoing crackdown on for-profit higher education has contributed to that regulatory energy . So has the cost of federal educational benefits for veterans and members of the military, which is growing rapidly  and will reach an estimated $11 billion in 2012. Given Washington’s budget woes, some veterans' groups worry that even the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill might not be safe from future cuts, despite the political popularity of its beneficiaries.
The four-year-old G.I. Bill has helped pay for the education of almost 800,000 veterans so far. And with the drawdowns in Afghanistan and Iraq, more veterans  are enrolling every day.
Nobody wants to see veterans lose access to money for college. So a coalition of groups representing veterans, for-profits and traditional colleges is working to find regulatory fixes that can help protect public investment in those benefits while not being an unnecessary burden for colleges. Their overarching goal is to find ways to better track how veterans are faring in college and to require institutions to provide more consumer information to potential student veterans.
That has proven tricky, however, and some major veterans' groups have at times been frustrated with what they’ve seen as foot-dragging by advocates for traditional higher education. But although the two sides don’t always agree, both said they are working together and are confident that they can find common ground.
“We all want the best for student veterans,” said Steve L. Gonzalez, assistant director of the American Legion’s national economic division. “I’m optimistic that we can all get together and not make this too political.”
The Obama administration in April issued an executive order  that will require colleges  to release more information about financial aid and graduation rates pertaining to veterans. The order also set up a complaint system for suspected institutional fraud or abuse of veterans’ benefits. Hollister Petraeus has gotten the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau into the action with a report  on military student borrowers. And last year the Department of Defense released a “memorandum of understanding” on guidelines  for colleges to participate in military aid programs.
Congress has also been busy of late, with a flurry  of proposed bills  that would require colleges  to collect and disclose more about how they are serving veterans. And unlike virtually all other higher education-related legislation, a few of those bills might have the bipartisan support to make it to President Obama's desk sometime soon.
Furthermore, while those consumer protections are specific to veterans, the debates might be a proxy for coming battles over for-profits and measuring the academy’s performance more broadly. And veteran-related bills are certain to be part of the looming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which could begin as soon as next year.
For-profits have done a good job contributing to recent negotiations over military-related bills, said officials from several veterans' groups. That could help them find allies in pushing back on more aggressive legislation. The big issue for the industry is how veterans-related money is counted under the so-called 90/10 rule, which requires that no more than 90 percent of an institution's revenue come from federal sources. The veterans and military education benefits are not counted as federal money in that equation. But some lawmakers would like to change that.
Veterans and One Dupont
One veterans protection bill in particular has momentum. The U.S. House of Representatives in September passed  the “Improving Transparency of Education Opportunities for Veterans Act,” H.R. 4057, which was introduced by Rep. Gus Bilirakis, a Florida Republican. The University of Phoenix and the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, the major for-profit trade group, support the bill. And veterans' groups are urging  the U.S. Senate to consider it in the few days remaining in this session of Congress. The traditional higher education lobby wants a few tweaks to the legislation, but most of those changes can be made fairly easily, observers said.
“We want to make sure that student veterans are not taken advantage of,” said James Hermes, director of government relations for the American Association of Community Colleges. “We’re basically assuming that we’re going to see legislation on this.”
Whatever problems some college lobbyists have with the Bilirakis bill, they pale in comparison to complaints about ambitious legislation  proposed by Sen. Patty Murray, the Washington Democrat who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
That bill goes further with about 30 new information requests from colleges, some of them complex and duplicative of other federal reporting requirements.
“This is gainful employment writ large,” said John Ebersole, president of Excelsior College, referring to sweeping rules that mostly target for-profits.
If passed, Ebersole said, the legislation would cost colleges real money while providing at best a “very marginal benefit” for student veterans.
The Murray bill , dubbed the “GI Bill Consumer Awareness Act,” would require the Pentagon and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to develop a joint policy to curb colleges’ excessive recruiting of veterans and military personnel. It also seeks the creation of an online guide, managed by the V.A., which would provide detailed information on college-level data on student loan debt, transferability of credits, veteran enrollment and job placement ads. Some of those statistics would be further broken down into the academic program level.
Murray has said that the legislation's goal is to help veterans make informed decisions about which college to attend.
The denizens of One Dupont Circle, the building here that houses most higher education trade groups, are not fans of the bill. A September letter  to Murray and Burr from Molly Broad, president of the American Council on Education, said the legislation would create an unnecessary new data collection regime. Most of the major higher education associations signed onto the letter.
“Institutions have been overwhelmed by the pace and number of veteran consumer information requests emanating from the White House, Congress, multiple federal agencies and many state legislatures,” Broad wrote. “We are concerned that without further coordination, S. 2241 is likely to duplicate existing efforts, and cause further confusion for both agencies and institutions tasked with implementation.”
Broad’s letter irritated the American Legion and Student Veterans of America, which have supported the Murray bill. Representatives from the two groups said they were blindsided by the letter.
The opposition by One Dupont came at the “last minute,” said Michael Dakduk, executive director of Student Veterans of America. He said the groups should have been more upfront in hashing out differences about the legislation. “We want to hear what their concerns are.”
Those communication problems may be easing, however, as the major players work toward a compromise on the Bilirakis bill.
“There’s a pretty collaborative effort going on,” said Daniel Elkins, a legislative associate with the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), which has taken a leadership role in negotiations over the two bills. “ACE has come to the table countless times.”
Urgency on Accountability
Representatives from veterans' groups say they understand the potential pitfalls in crafting effective legislation on protections for veterans. But they said the Bilirakis bill is a reasonable first step.
“It’s one of the least prescriptive options and we’re running out of time,” Ryan M. Gallucci, deputy director of national legislative service for the VFW, said via e-mail. “Let’s try the simplest solution first and see if it works.”
Lobbyists for higher education institutions agreed.
“The House bill is preferable because it is a little more flexible,” said Anne T. Hickey, ACE’s director of government relations.
Broad sent a similar letter  to Capitol Hill detailing concerns about the Bilirakis legislation. For example, the bill would require the V.A. to create a centralized tracking system for feedback from student veterans and state agencies about various aspects of institutional quality and practices. Without verifying the accuracy of that feedback, Broad wrote, inaccurate information could be posted.
And as with the Murray bill, major higher education groups are worried about potential administrative burdens created by the House legislation.
However, Hickey said most of ACE's problems with the legislation are technical or minor, and could be smoothed out as it moves on to the Senate.
“I don’t think any of those are show-stoppers,” she said. “There’s a will to see if those can be addressed.”
They key with making either bill workable is for their data collection requirements to be specific and not overly duplicative, said Russell S. Kitchner, vice president for regulatory and governmental relations at the American Public University System, which enrolls a large number of service members and veterans.
“Institutions with a commitment to providing high quality educational experiences at a reasonable and manageable cost to veterans and taxpayers have little to fear from Congressional action,” Kitchner said in an e-mail, “unless the enabling legislation incorporates metrics that are ill-defined, off-target or ambiguous.”
For now, veterans groups said they are going to continue pressing policies that seek to ensure that educational benefits for their members are being well-spent. It’s hard to believe Congress would vote to cut the Post-9/11 GI Bill, a move that many would see as both unjust and politically stupid. But the federal budget outlook is bad enough that advocates for veterans want to make sure they act now before that scenario becomes a reality.
(Note: This article has been updated from an earlier version to correct an erroneous mention of a co-sponsor of the Murray bill.)