RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Hundreds of thousands of veterans have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, eager to get an education under the new, post-911 GI Bill. And many of them find themselves overwhelmed by a deluge of sales pitches from for-profit schools hungry for their government benefits. As NPR's Larry Abramson reports, some lawmakers are looking for ways to protect vets, without narrowing their education choices.
LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Daniel Elkins, with the Veterans of Foreign Wars, recently did what a lot of vets do: He went to a site called GIBill.com, and he answered a bunch of questions - like, what do you want to study? Have you ever been to college before?
DANIEL ELKINS: You have to select your educational goal, your service affiliation. You put in an email and a ZIPcode.
ABRAMSON: Elkins provided his contact information, and the response was overwhelming.
ELKINS: In fact, within three to four days, I got in the excess of 70 phone calls, and I got well over 300 emails.
ABRAMSON: That's because GIBill.com is a commercial site run by a company called Quinstreet. Quinstreet is a lead generator. It sells this information primarily to for-profit colleges and universities. With their generous marketing budgets, for-profit schools can afford to pay for leads that will guide them to vets thinking about enrolling in college. Jack Conway is attorney general of Kentucky, and is leading a multistate investigation of for-profit colleges.
JACK CONWAY: The concern I have, as someone who's involved in consumer protection - are they engaged in the type of consumer interaction that does not violate our various consumer protection acts in our respective states?
ABRAMSON: In other words, are they pretending to be a government website? Some of these sites have disclaimers; others do not. Either way, once they get their hooks into potential students, they don't let go easily. Veterans are an important front in the aggressive growth of for-profit schools in recent years. The VA has already paid out nearly $18 billion in post-9-11 education benefits. Holly Petraeus is looking out for vets at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She says the size of that target has inspired for-profit schools to roll out the welcome mat.
HOLLY PETRAEUS: The for-profits were much more responsive, and more nimble, in reacting to the military's desire to have online classes. Especially those who deploy or go on training exercises, they really wanted a class that would be portable so they wouldn't have to drop out if they had to leave the base where they were assigned.
ABRAMSON: Some members of Congress are worried that these schools are ripping off the government, luring students into programs that seldom lead to good jobs. Lawmakers have even asked the Department of Veterans Affairs to trademark terms like GI Bill, so that commercial sites cannot use these words to gain veterans' trust. Jim Sweizer works for the American Public University System, an online, for-profit school where 65,000 vets take classes. [POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: The number of students includes active-duty military members.] He says his school long ago stopped paying for sales leads collected from veterans.
JIM SWEIZER: We found that the leads that we get from these third-party lead generators really are shoppers. They're not serious students.
ABRAMSON: Concern about these sales tactics has led Congress to explore tighter limits on the amount of public funds that can go to for-profit colleges. But Jim Sweizer says that would just hurt schools that are trying to deal honestly with vets. He says schools that don't deliver what they promise should be punished.
SWEIZER: And I'll leave it up to the lawmakers to decide what those sanctions should be. But that's who they should go after, and not just go after an entire industry or a segment of schools.
ABRAMSON: Sweizer would like to see the VA as the ultimate college guidance counselor to vets. The VA does have tons of pointers on its website. But with 435,000 students currently enrolled and a limited budget, the VA is hard-pressed to compete with lead generators and aggressive commercial pitches. Larry Abramson, NPR News.