FORT STEWART, Ga. – 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."
But Sgt. 1st Class Brian Cain said his chain of command already keeps a lookout for college scams and questioned the need for the president to step in to address the issue.
"To me the president needs to be taking care of world-sized problems," he said. "This is kind of like trying to kill a fly with an M-1 Abrams tank."
Bills pending in Congress, largely backed by Democrats and unlikely to become law soon, would do many of the same things Obama was ordering Friday.
Obama's order will also set a new gauge that potential students can use to calculate how much a school will really cost in tuition and fees. Schools are asked to voluntarily participate in the "Know Before You Owe" system this school year and would be required to do so next year.
A recent Senate report on 15 large, publicly traded, for-profit education companies said they got 86 percent of their revenue from taxpayers and have spent a combined $3.7 billion annually on marketing and recruiting.
Student Veterans of America, a leading campus veterans group, applauded the White House announcement, saying the executive order would help stop "deceptive and misleading" practices at educational institutions.
The Obamas were to be joined in Georgia by Holly Petraeus, the assistant director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau focused on economic security for military families. She's the wife of David Petraeus, the retired four-star general and current CIA director.
Associated Press writer Russ Bynum in Fort Stewart, Ga., and AP Education Writer Justin Pope contributed to this report.