Update 10/15/2013 2 PM: This post was edited to reflect that the proposed reform would include Tuition Assistance in the 90 percent calculation, not the 10 percent.
Congress failed to reach an agreement on funding the government for fiscal year 2014, which began on October 1, 2013, shutting down the federal government. That high-stakes budget battle has overshadowed a different disagreement between the House and Senate that could have a big effect on education benefits for members of the military – and for-profit colleges.
The disagreement is on the Department of Defense Appropriations Act, one of the annual bills that funds the DOD. The House passed the bill back in July and sent it to the Senate. The Senate Appropriations Committee passed the bill on August 2 – but included a change to an existing test for colleges called the 90/10 rule.
The 90/10 rule states that private for-profit colleges must get at least 10 percent of their total revenue from non-federal sources, namely tuition collected from the student or his family. Failure to do so can result in losing access to Title IV funds. The 90 percent includes federal Title IV aid – Pell Grants, federal student loans, and more. It does not include nearly $12 billion spent annually on servicemembers’ and veterans’ education benefits through the Department of Defense or the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), nor does it include more than $25 billion annually lost to tax expenditures.
The new proposed language in the DOD fiscal year 2014 bill would change some of those exclusions. Military education assistance for spouses of servicemembers or off-duty training and education for servicemembers themselves would be included in the 90 percent calculation. Additionally, for-profit colleges couldn’t use any of that Tuition Assistance (DOD) funding to advertise, recruit, or market to students.
All in all, the provision is pretty limited. The Department of Defense spends only about $517 million per year on these benefits, a small share of the DoD budget or even of federal higher education funding. VA benefits, the much larger pot of money that includes the Post-9/11 GI Bill, among other education provisions, would not be affected by the new NDAA provision.
And because there are no publicly available data that provide the institution-level breakdown of the dollar amount of DOD and VA benefits spent, it’s impossible to know exactly how many schools might be affected. A paper published by financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz this summer used national averages to estimate that adding in DOD and VA benefits would add about 2 percentage points to a school’s 90/10 amount (for example, a school that received 88 percent of benefits from federal Title IV sources under the current system would receive 90 percent when military benefits were added in. Click here to search for a school and see its 90/10 percentage, alongside other data).Those effects could be more or less severe, depending on the school’s reliance on military student benefits.
Kantrowitz also suggested the effects of banning the use of federal money for marketing would be far more drastic. Since the largest for-profit schools spend about 20 percent of their total revenue on advertising and recruitment, he argues it would effectively increase the threshold for schools to 80/20. Again, though, the largest for-profit schools may not be a good sample to judge the effects on all schools subject to 90/10 – for some schools, it could be far less than 20 percent, or for some schools, even more.
Last week, four Republican members of the House – John Kline, Chair of the Education and Workforce Committee; Jeff Miller, Chair of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee; Buck McKeon, chair of the Armed Services Committee; and Bill Flores, chair of the Economic Opportunity Subcommittee on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee – sent a letter to key members of the House Appropriations Committee disparaging the Senate provisions. They asked that the new restrictions be removed before the defense appropriations bill passes the House again.
The marketing provision implies schools are “preying” on unsuspecting members of the military and their families, and the 90/10 rule is both unproductive and unable to account for the fundamental differences between Title IV and military education benefits.
They aren’t the first to suggest concerns with the 90/10 rule, writ large. The rule is intended as a kind of rough, imperfect metric of quality – schools that aren’t able to garner at least 10 percent of revenue from non-federal sources have presumably been labeled by the market as not worth paying for. But it can have other, unintended effects, mainly discouraging schools from serving low-income students or compelling them to raise tuition. Since the 90/10 rule includes no measure of outcomes or of how well the school serves those students, it may just be leading to the exclusion of students who can’t contribute the school’s 10 percent of non-federal revenue. (Incidentally, better data in the form of a student unit record data system could allow for better quality measures and make the 90/10 rule irrelevant.)
But including military benefits within the 90/10 rule is a no-brainer, whether or not the rule is revised to avoid these unintended consequences or to incorporate additional quality measures. The question at hand is whether students and families are willing to shell out for a particular school at which many students receive federal aid – at least 10 percent of the school’s total fiscal intake. DOD and VA benefits, as federal benefits for students, fall squarely on the 90 percent side of the equation. Failing to include them creates a perfect loophole for exploitation of servicemembers and veterans by schools that can’t otherwise meet a basic financial test.
The Federal Education Budget Project, Ed Money Watch’s parent initiative, maintains a comprehensive database that includes data on the 90/10 rule for all institutions of higher education subject to the rule, as well as other cost, finance, demographics, and outcomes data. Click here to search for your school or here to download the institution-level research file.