VA trademarks term 'GI Bill' to shield vets from deception

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 4, 2012 

— Hoping to prevent online ads and the websites of for-profit schools from misleading Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, the Department of Veterans Affairs has trademarked the words “GI Bill.”

Since the first GI Bill was enacted in 1944, it’s represented the government’s compact to provide an education for service members returning to civilian life. Recent government investigations, however, have spotlighted problems as for-profit schools compete for government dollars under the latest version of the bill.

Senate and Government Accountability Office investigations in recent months found that some for-profit colleges and universities recruit veterans without telling them the full truth about costs, loans, credit transfers and dropout rates.

At stake are billions of dollars divided among hundreds of thousands of service members and veterans, and their spouses and children, under the 2008 Post-9/11 GI Bill.

“We will continue to support our veterans by helping them obtain the best education of their choosing – a right for which they have bravely served, and which they have truly earned,” Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki said in a statement Monday announcing the trademark. “We all want veterans to be informed consumers in their educational pursuit.”

Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., one of 14 senators who urged Shinseki last March to trademark the expression “GI Bill,” said in a statement Tuesday that it was a “significant step towards ensuring that our veterans are not deceived when seeking to further their education.”

Hagan is a sponsor of a proposed law that would permanently ban the misleading use of “GI Bill.” Trademark owners must pursue those who use their material improperly. If they don’t, the protection expires.

The federal government already protects other words that identify its programs, such as “Social Security” and “Medicare.”

For-profit colleges and universities have been in the spotlight as a result of several investigations, including one by the VA’s online news team.

“In some cases, these schools have ensnared veterans looking for info by using official-looking websites, which funneled potential recruits to those schools without any balanced, objective information,” Alex Horton, an Iraq war veteran and VA blogger, wrote Monday on the department’s VAntage Point blog.

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions also investigated for-profit colleges and universities. Its findings, reported in July, were that many of them used false advertising to recruit students.

The committee found that most for-profit colleges and universities charge higher tuition than community colleges and flagship state universities do, and that in 2010, 54 percent of the students who’d enrolled in for-profit schools in the 2008-09 school year had dropped out. The report also found that eight of the top 10 recipients of GI Bill funds were for-profit schools.

Specific problems with military-sounding sites came to light last summer with the case of GIBill.com.

That site mimicked the official GI Bill website, www.gibill.va.gov. Attorneys general from 20 states, both Republicans and Democrats, alleged that the company that managed it, QuinStreet Inc., violated consumer protection laws.

They found that several of QuinStreet’s sites, including GIBill.com, were deceptive by giving the appearance of being official and the impression that the schools they listed as eligible for tuition money under the bill, which were almost all for-profits, were the only places where the benefits could be used.

In June, Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, who led the effort by the attorneys general, announced that the company had agreed in a settlement to turn over GIBill.com to the VA and pay $2.5 million to the states involved in the case.

Email: rschoof@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @reneeschoof

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