The number of Post-9/11 GI Bill users fell significantly in fiscal 2017 – the first time this has ever happened in the benefit’s nearly 10-year history, federal data shows.

About 4 percent fewer veterans or dependents used the GI Bill at U.S. schools last fiscal year, a 34,000 student drop, according to the most recent annual figures provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

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The University of Phoenix continued a years-long trend of sharply falling numbers of Post-9/11 GI Bill users yet still kept its place as the most popular destination for users of the benefit, a designation the for-profit school has held since the benefit started in 2009.

For-profit institutions overall have similarly seen their GI Bill enrollment numbers fall for the past three years, as federal departments under President Obama attempted to more strictly regulate the industry. But it appears that such heightened scrutiny of for-profits may be coming to an end in the Trump administration.

The VA data show 53 percent of GI Bill recipients in fiscal 2017 attended public schools, 27 percent went to for-profit schools and 20 percent used their benefits at private schools.

The University of Phoenix system of schools educated 28,373 students who used the GI Bill to pay for school. The second most popular destination for GI Bill users was the University System of Maryland with 19,077 students, the majority of whom attended the University of Maryland University College. California community colleges took in the third highest number of GI Bill users – 18,503 – followed by for-profits American Public Education Inc. and Education Management Corp., each with 15,520 and 9,642 GI Bill students, respectively.

Why the drop?

It’s difficult to pin down an exact reason for the drop in GI Bill users, which went down to 755,476 in fiscal 2017 after sitting above 790,000 for the previous three years.

A VA spokesman said the department isn’t concerned about the drop. Usage can be affected by a range of factors, including the number of transitioning service members, their age and the very low veteran unemployment rate.

James Schmeling, executive vice president for the nonprofit Student Veterans of America, offered some of the same reasons as possible explanations for the decrease.

“A number of people will enter the workforce and leave school or not start school when there are more jobs and lower unemployment, and we’ve seen unemployment dropping over the past several years to about its lowest level,” he said.

Schmeling said he also thinks recent changes to the Post-9/11 GI Bill under the Forever GI Bill last August, which expanded on the original benefits signed into law in 2008, could reduce veterans’ urgency to finish their degree as soon as possible.

The Forever GI Bill removed the 15-year time limit on the GI Bill for veterans who have separated from the military since Jan. 1, 2013 and retroactively restored benefits to victims of school closures, among other big changes to the benefit for other veterans, reservists and surviving family members.

Vets and for-profit schools

The number of GI Bill users at for-profit schools fell by more than 30,000 between fiscal 2016 and 2017, according to another VA data set, which is calculated differently than the overall GI Bill usage totals mentioned previously.

The University of Phoenix system alone shed just over 7,000 GI Bill students between the two years. No. 5 Education Management Corp., which took in the second highest dollar amount in GI Bill benefits after Phoenix, shed more than a couple thousand students. The company has since sold off the lion’s share of its schools to the Dream Center Foundation.

Schmeling said for-profit schools in general have historically marketed to veterans in a way that public and traditional private schools, which often focus recruitment efforts on high school students, have not. For-profits have also been known to more freely award credit for military service, allowing veterans to potentially complete their degrees more quickly.

Ryan Gallucci, director of National Veteran Service for Veterans of Foreign Wars, said less stringent enrollment policies are also a draw for transitioning service members who want to go to college right away and may have missed the application deadlines set by more traditional schools.

“That makes them really accessible,” he said. “Open, rolling enrollment is, for lack of a better term, the path of least resistance.”

More traditional schools also don’t have the footprint that the large for-profit institutions do, he said. The University of Phoenix, for example, has a large online program, as well as physical locations across the country.

“Many of our student veterans tell us they either know or have spoken to other military-affiliated students and alumni: Through them they see our dedication to veterans and military families,” a school spokesman told Military Times.

Students choose the school, which conferred its one-millionth degree this year, because of the “career relevant curriculum, our network of both ground locations and online courses, as well as our experience in translating military experience into academic credits,” the spokesman said.

But as public and private universities have ramped up their distance education offerings and are able to compete with for-profit programs, Schmeling said there’s been a shift in enrollment, with more veterans turning to those schools for an education.

In fiscal 2017, 73 percent of GI Bill students used their benefits at public or nonprofit private schools – up from 68 percent in fiscal 2013, according to federal data.

The University of Maryland system edged out California community colleges for the No. 2 spot in the Top 50 this year, thanks largely to the growth of the University of Maryland University College. The school has always focused on educating adult learners but has made a point in recent years to respond to students’ need for a hybrid education model, said Keith Hauk, a UMUC associate vice president. Now, certain online classes also offer a face-to-face component.

The California Community College System is also adding a wholly online school, and schools across the state are boosting their support for veterans. David Lawrence, a veterans service specialist in the chancellor’s office, said the state’s 2017-18 budget allotted funding for veteran resource centers on college campuses for the first time.

For-profit regulation

Under President Obama, the for-profit sector shed more than a million students and hundreds of campuses, exemplified by the collapses of Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute. The administration stopped recognizing the sector’s largest accreditor and imposed accountability measures that advocates saw as a way to curb high student debt and poor outcomes at these schools.

President Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, has since reinstated the accreditor and suggested more changes that would bring regulatory relief for the for-profit sector under the current administration. Early in her tenure, DeVos held off on implementing an Obama-era rule that would require for-profit and other certificate programs to show proof of gainful employment for alumni.

More recently, DeVos expressed her support for a controversial House bill that would roll back the gainful employment rule and eliminate a so-called 90-10 rule requiring that for-profit colleges get at least 10 percent of their funds from sources other than federal financial aid. For these and other reasons, the Republican-backed PROSPER Act has been hotly contested by several veteran service organizations.

GI Bill benefits do not count as federal financial aid dollars in the 90-10 rule, and some have accused for-profit schools of taking advantage of this exception and, in turn, student veterans.

The Education Department has also shrunk and repurposed an investigative team begun under Obama that looked into abuse in the for-profit sector – again to the chagrin of some veteran education advocates.

“This matters for military-connected students for a number of reasons,” said Tanya Ang, policy and outreach director for the nonprofit Veterans Education Success. “They are oftentimes one of the most largely targeted groups from predatory schools because of their education benefits. A lot of them are first generation, they’re low-income, they’re minority, they’re those underserved populations that don’t often understand the nuances of higher education.”

Student Veterans of America is also concerned about the recent changes the current administration is making to for-profit regulation.

“The closing of ITT and Corinthian showed we need champions in government to both prevent and react to bad actors, and we know bad actors and harmful practices continue. Taxpayer resources should be devoted to ensuring federal funds are used at institutions providing quality education, including degree programs, credentials, and certifications,” said SVA Director of Policy Lauren Augustine.

DeVos’ press secretary Liz Hill, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment by Military Times, told the New York Times recently that the reduction in the size of the team investigating for-profit institutions “neither points to a curtailment of our school oversight efforts nor indicates a conscious effort to ignore ‘large-scale’ investigations.”

Hill told the Times the department is “focused on weeding out bad actors” but not “targeting schools based on their tax status.”

Many in the for-profit sector who felt unfairly attacked under Obama have accused the previous administration of doing this.

John Aldrich, associate vice president for military relations at American Military University, part of American Public Education Inc., the fourth largest enroller of GI Bill students, said treating all schools and their students equally “seems fair and reasonable.”

The “PROSPER Act and DeVos Education Department’s review of Obama regulations have a shared purpose to treat all accredited schools and their students equally – whether they be public or private, on-ground or online, non-profit or for-profit institutions,” Aldrich said.

John Kamin, assistant director of the American Legion employment and education division, said as the Education Department evaluates gainful employment rules and other measures, it’s important that accountability remains a priority.

“We’ve been flexible with the Department of Education in determining how better that can happen,” he said of gainful employment, “but outright elimination is completely unacceptable.”

VFW’s Gallucci said it’s in the interest of the department to keep schools in check.

“I want to make sure that new policies are put forward in the higher (education) space that keep the best interest of the consumer in mind,” he said. “We don’t want our taxpayers investing in bad products, so providing consumer protections, providing consequences for bad actors make good business sense for the Department of Education, makes good business sense for the country.”