By ANNE GEARAN, Associated Press
FORT STEWART, Ga. (AP) — President Barack Obama reached out to a generation of young soldiers Friday as he added new protections for veterans and military families misled or bilked by career colleges and technical programs that target their federal education benefits. "They don't care about you," he declared, "they care about your cash."
Obama signed a broad order that partially addresses growing complaints about fraudulent marketing and recruiting practices aimed at military families eligible for federal education aid under the GI Bill.
Sounding outraged, Obama said some of these schools go after military men and women "just for the money." And citing what he called "one of the worst examples," Obama said a college recruiter enrolled Marines with brain injuries who couldn't even remember what courses they had signed up for.
"That's appalling, that's disgraceful," Obama said. "They're trying to swindle and hoodwink you."
In remarks that echoed some of his election-year rhetoric, Obama said he made troops and veterans a promise that America would fight for them just as they fought for their country. He addressed what he called the "9/11 generation," both in the military and out, as he listed accomplishments of his first term.
First, the president and first lady Michelle Obama paid tribute to fallen soldiers, walking slowly hand in hand along the Fort Stewart Warriors Walk, a wide path lined with 441 memorial trees. At the base of each tree sits a granite marker with a soldier's name.
Though there is little the federal government can do to shut down diploma mills, the new protections would make it harder for postsecondary and technical schools to misrepresent themselves to military students.
The main target of the White House action is for-profit colleges and universities that market heavily to military families because of the easy availability of federal money under the GI Bill.
Some postsecondary schools try to attract current and former military service members using deceptive military-themed websites that appear to be government-run or connected to the GI Bill benefit system, administration officials said.
Commercial sites like GIbill.com, for instance, give the appearance of being generalized information sites about the benefit but in fact direct users to a narrow list of mostly for-profit institutions.
Colleges — not all of them for-profits — advertise on such sites and pay outside companies for recruiting leads, hoping for a piece of the estimated $9 billion the new G.I. Bill is expected to pay out this year to educate nearly 600,000 veterans.
Much of the advertising is tied closely to online searches for terms like "GI Bill." As a result, the Obama administration wants to trademark the term "GI Bill" so it can't be used as an enticement.
Quality at for-profit colleges varies widely, and many are a good fit for students, particularly adult learners looking for flexible scheduling and specialized career training that often requires a certificate but not a degree.
The Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, which represents for-profits, said in a statement it was disappointed that Obama "decided to bypass the Congress" with an executive order.
"Career-oriented institutions proudly serve military and veteran populations and work with congressional leaders in a bipartisan manner to address concerns about veteran education across all sectors of higher education," the lobbying group said.
Obama was introduced by Sgt. Johnnie Marshall, one of several soldiers who met with the president privately before his remarks. Marshall enrolled in two online courses at a for-profit school only to learn the school had accreditation problems. He has since transferred to Central Texas College.
Among those in the crowd was Pfc. Benjamin Root, 25, of Dubuque, Iowa, who said his home mailbox gets clogged with flyers and brochures from vocational and technical colleges. "Colleges can be very aggressive trying to recruit active-duty soldiers and veterans because we have government benefits," Root said. "If they can do anything to safeguard those benefits, that would be great."