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Senators urge VA to trademark 'GI Bill' to curb alleged abuse by for-profit schools

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Oct. 19, 2011: Sen. Tom Harkin speaks to a staff member on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP)

More than a dozen senators are calling on the Department of Veterans Affairs to trademark the phrase "GI Bill," claiming that for-profit schools are abusing the term in a "deceptive" effort to lure service members and their healthy government benefits. 

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who has been on a tear against for-profits colleges, sent a letter along with 13 other Democratic senators calling on Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to "exert control" over how the term GI Bill is used, just as the government does with programs like Social Security and Medicare

The senators expressed "deep concern" about how these schools were recruiting veterans, accusing them of overpromising benefits and charging "exorbitant fees." Harkin's office said some recruiters were using the phrase GI Bill on their websites to "wrongly imply" that the benefits can only be used at those institutions. 

"Since 1944 the phrase 'GI Bill' has been a symbol of our nation's obligation to give back to those who serve. Any attempt to mislead veterans into using these hard-earned benefits for substandard or overpriced programs should not be tolerated," the senators wrote. 

The letter was the latest salvo in a campaign being waged by Harkin and the panel he chairs -- the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions -- against certain corners of the for-profit college industry in the wake of the Post-Sept. 11 GI Bill. 

A report last month from committee Democrats showed about half of the military's tuition assistance dollars was going toward for-profit colleges. Harkin's office has claimed the schools are spending heavily on recruitment and marketing, but in some cases offering veterans questionable services. Another report in late 2010 looked at 20 such education companies, and claimed the amount of VA and Defense Department benefits they received soared from $67 million in 2006 to $521 million in 2010. 

For-profit educational leaders counter that the schools provide America's veterans with opportunities at success that fit their needs.

"Today, almost 200,000 veterans achieve access to post-secondary education opportunities through private sector colleges and universities," Steve Gunderson, president of The Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, said in a statement. "The flexibility and focus of our academic delivery often fits the family and academic needs of these veterans." 

For-profit colleges cover everything from technical schools to online universities and have become a booming industry.  Bridgepoint Education, one of the companies cited by Harkin's panel for the amount of military tuition money it receives, said in a statement that service members "should be rewarded with educational opportunity." 

"As an organization, Bridgepoint Education remains fully committed to supporting all opportunities for members of the military and their families to earn a college education and to seek the bright future that education offers," the statement reads. 

"We want to do all we can to give every veteran the maximum information about the use of their GI benefits," added Gunderson, "and to preserve the opportunity for each veteran to make an informed choice that best serves their educational needs." 

A spokesman for the Department of Veterans Affairs said the department is reviewing the latest letter and "developing a response." 

Spokesman Joshua Taylor, though, acknowledged the department is working with Congress as it considers "changes in this area." He offered words of warning to for-profit schools, saying veterans should be protected and "armed with enough information to make the right choice and prevent profit-driven institutions from taking advantage of them solely for their GI Bill benefits -- without providing a quality education in return." 

"Veterans should not be aggressively recruited by institutions principally because of financial motives," he said in an email to FoxNews.com. "The department understands the demand, especially among veterans, for non-traditional forms of education. But we also believe that protecting the rights of those who've served in uniform -- by ensuring their chosen schools intend to offer them the best education possible -- is of the highest importance." 

Democrats on Harkin's committee have led the charge against for-profit schools. Asked for comment on the latest effort, a spokesman for ranking Republican Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., said Enzi would like to see the investigation broadened, beyond just for-profit schools. 

"He thinks there should be a wider study to (look at) higher education as a whole -- why are costs rising so much?" spokesman Joe Brenckle said. 

Harkin, in a written statement, said the government needs to take "basic steps" to make sure veterans attending any school, "for-profit or not," are getting a quality education that can lead to a job. 

Harkin spokeswoman Justine Sessions said the senator is trying to make sure that the military benefits are going toward "high-quality educational institutions" and that service members are going to schools with proven records of success. 

"He's not trying to prohibit the entire for-profit industry from getting these benefits," she said. 

Harkin and other senators in December convinced the Defense Department to delay the implementation of a new agreement with colleges and universities governing eligibility for tuition assistance dollars. 

Citing his concerns with for-profit schools, Harkin urged the department to make sure schools that receive the money offer "important academic and student support services." 

The concern with the use of the term "GI Bill" stems from a slew of websites tied to for-profit schools which, according to Harkin's office, purport to be an "official portal" to GI Bill benefits. 

In the latest letter, the senators urged the Department of Veterans Affairs to file a trademark application -- if granted, they said the department could then have control over who could use the phrase, and make sure it is used "to inform veterans about education benefits in an impartial and comprehensive manner." 

"At the same time, a federal trademark would prevent the phrase 'GI Bill' from being used in misleading or dishonest marketing campaigns," they wrote.

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