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Witness Testimony of Dr. Jonathan C. Gibralter PhD., President, Frostburg State University On Behalf of American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU)

Chairman Stutzman, Ranking Member Braley, and distinguished members of the Subcommittee. I am Dr. Jonathan Gibralter, President of Frostburg State University in Maryland.  I am testifying on behalf of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, commonly known as AASCU.  AASCU represents over 400 institutions and university systems across 49 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Virgin Islands.

Thank you for holding this hearing and providing me the opportunity to present testimony regarding the President’s April 27th Executive Order, which establishes Principles of Excellence for Educational Institutions Serving Service Members and Spouses. I ask that my testimony be entered into the record.

AASCU appreciates the intent of the issued Executive Order.  Our nation’s veterans and military personnel should be able to obtain quality information about institutions and their programs that also take into consideration the particular benefits they have earned.  AASCU and its member institutions, including my own campus, value the perspective and experience that servicemembers and veterans bring to our institutions.  As such, we take our commitment to providing them a quality educational experience very seriously.

In fact, AASCU as a whole has concerned itself with the welfare of military and veteran students for decades both as a member of the larger higher education community and as the administrative agent for Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges (SOC) since 1972. As an association representing four-year public institutions—a sector that in 2007-08, prior to the Post-9/11 GI Bill’s enactment, served roughly 21 percent of military undergraduates according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)—AASCU represents many institutions that have made a commitment to serving this population of students.[1] Therefore, the specifics of our testimony are offered in the spirit of assisting the various Cabinet agencies involved in implementing the Executive Order to best help the veteran and military students who our institutions have educated for years.

To discuss my own institution for a moment, the G.I. Bill has had a significant impact on the history of Frostburg State University, marking its move to the modern era. In early 1945, enrollment in Frostburg State Teachers College had dwindled to 62 students and Frostburg was slated for closure. With the advent of the G.I. Bill, however, enrollment jumped to 272 students in 1946. By 1949, it had grown to 427, a six-fold increase in five years. As the G.I. Bill transformed our nation, it transformed Frostburg, truly marking the beginning of the modern era for our institution.

Since then, Frostburg State has continued to evolve as the needs of veterans have changed over the years. In the 1960s and early 1970s, our concern was accommodating the disruption in students’ educations, especially if they were drafted mid-year, as well as meeting their educational and other needs upon their return from service.

The attacks on September 11, 2001, and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have necessitated the nation undertake similar measures to serve those who served us. As the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down and over 2 million troops are withdrawn from those areas, more and more veterans will be arriving on college campuses to use the educational benefits they have earned serving our country. In addition, our active-duty military are combining service to the country with higher education. For example, in 2011, 751,000 active-duty military utilized their Tuition Assistance (TA) benefits by enrolling in undergraduate programs. A total of 41,223 undergraduate degrees were awarded; including graduate degrees,  44,691 total degrees were completed by TA users.

On the veteran front, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) stated in its February 2012 budget request  that over a million active-duty military personnel are projected to become veterans over the next five years. VA anticipated that if its spending proposals were approved by Congress, they would support education benefits for more than a million American veterans. According to the same VA document,  in FY 2013, “The Post-9/11 GI Bill will help pay the educational expenses of more than 606,000 service members, Veterans, family members and survivors.”[2]

Specifically, since Frostburg is not near major military installations, it serves the majority of veterans and active military connected to our region’s National Guard and Reserve units. The number of veterans we serve varies significantly from year to year. Our growing online programs, in particular our accredited MBA, are proving popular with veterans since they are designed for flexibility. We anticipate that our newly accredited Bachelor of Science in Nursing for R.N.s, also online, will be of value to military medical personnel.

Those at Frostburg who work most closely with our veterans and military members recognize the same technical hurdles that my colleagues at AASCU do, which I will discuss further in a moment. Those of us “on the ground” are also most aware of the human issues of the individuals we work with. As there is no requirement that students identify themselves as veterans, some choose not to do so for a variety of reasons, meaning they may be missing out on services we can provide. Others arrive at Frostburg without having completed the process to become eligible for benefits, which also means they will be unable to take advantage of provisions in the Executive Order.

We understand that the Executive Order was written in more general terms than any specific implementation documents will be; however, the text of the Executive Order as written raises a number of concerns for AASCU institutions regarding implementation. Higher education and governmental stakeholders learned in the process of rolling out the Post-9/11 GI Bill  and revising the DoD MOU that the old adage “the devil is in the details” is still true today; the process of implementing the Executive Order will only reinforce it.

One of those details is the issue of data availability related to the order’s requirement that the Secretaries of Defense, Veterans Affairs, and Education “shall develop a comprehensive strategy for developing service member and veteran student outcome measures that are comparable, to the extent possible, across Federal military and veterans educational benefit programs, including, but not limited to, the Post-9/11 GI Bill and Tuition Assistance Program.” While AASCU appreciates the order’s statement that “To the extent practicable, the student outcome measures should rely on existing administrative data to minimize the reporting burden on institutions participating in these benefit programs,” there is considerably more burden to finding available data for this type of outcome measure than meets the eye.

Currently—as explained in the report from an Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) Technical Review Panel (TRP) convened in November 2011 to address the topic of collecting higher education data on servicemembers and veterans[3]—IPEDS does not collect data on veteran and military students. The panel was composed of 43 representatives including the Department of Defense (DoD), VA, AASCU and other members of the higher education community, state governments, and veteran/military student associations. After lengthy discussion, the panel came to the conclusion that “There is value in collecting more detailed information on veterans and military service members to address policy questions and provide more detailed information on veteran persistence rates, graduation rates, and the number of veterans completing postsecondary programs. However, given the limitations in data systems and available data, the panel concluded that IPEDS is not the appropriate instrument for collecting these data at this time.”[4]

Since IPEDS is an aggregated institutional-level database not designed to collect student-level data, and other national sample surveys (such as the National Postsecondary Student Aid Survey [NPSAS] and the Beginning Postsecondary Student Survey [BPS]) are limited in their ability to provide granular data on military and veteran students, the issues of data definition and collection raised by the Executive Order’s requirement to develop national-level outcome measures become even more significant for institutions. This is because institutions and states vary in their ways of defining veteran and military students based on what data is available to them. Yet another significant issue in data definition is, as I have mentioned is the case at Frostburg State, that not all veteran students self-identify as veterans or receive veterans education benefits. Also, as the TRP report points out, institutions and states are not always able to tell if a student covered by another veterans education benefit than the Post-9/11 GI Bill has actually received the benefit, or has only been certified as eligible by the VA.[5]

The points above scratch the surface of the technical issues involved. Higher education stakeholders, including AASCU, are more than willing to share their technical expertise with the Federal agencies tasked with implementing the Executive Order. However, given the complexity of data identification and collection on this topic, higher education institutions will inevitably be asked for data that may or may not be possible to obtain; AASCU would like to highlight this point for the Subcommittee.

This leads to another concern, which is that of reporting burden and associated cost as well as a subsidiary issue of mixed messages from the Administration calling for fewer regulations but adding reporting burden via an Executive Order.  In 2010, as part of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) completed an analysis of the burden placed on institutions to comply with expanded mandatory IPEDS reporting.[6] Among other issues, GAO found that “Schools reported time burdens [to complete IPEDS reporting] ranging from 12 to 590 hours, compared with the 19 to 41 hours Education estimated….”[7]  Further, GAO reported that institutions incurred a total estimated salaries and computer costs of over $6 million. [8]

Other than mandated Federal and state reporting as well as required reporting to accreditors, institutions also conduct significant internal data analyses and respond to external stakeholders including multiple publishers whose materials are used by many students, including servicemembers and veterans, to choose colleges.  The call for specific, comparable outcome measures in the Executive Order would be an expansion of current reporting requirements. As mentioned above, the data required is difficult to collect (and may be impossible in some cases) for institutions to obtain on their own. Depending on how the Executive Order is implemented, it may require institutions to incur considerable back-office costs related to reprogramming/expanding data systems and staff time. Given cuts to state-level higher education support over time combined with ever-expanding reporting requirements on multiple fronts, this cost is not a negligible issue for AASCU institutions.

In fact, to turn to my own institution’s case again, both Section 2(g) and Section 3(d) in the Executive Order will require the expenditure of significant amounts of professional time and effort, far beyond anything currently required by VA or State Approving Agency (SAA) mandates. It will not be possible to accomplish this kind of task on our campus without bearing the burden of an additional professional position. 

However, the sense AASCU has from initial conversations with the White House and other stakeholders regarding implementation of the Executive Order is that exploring the usability of administrative data on benefit payments housed in various Cabinet agencies—e.g., the Department of Education and the Department of Veterans Affairs—would be a profitable avenue to follow. AASCU encourages the use, wherever possible, of data housed in the various data silos of the Departments of Education, Defense, and Veterans Affairs in order to comply with the Executive Order. If this data were released to the higher education community (while following applicable data privacy standards), higher education researchers can assist in analyzing the data. AASCU also looks forward to continued collaboration with those tasked with carrying out the Executive Order to find cost-effective ways of providing usable and meaningful data on military and veteran students. 

While data-related implementation issues are of considerable concern to AASCU, an additional key concern is the complaint system outlined in the Executive Order that would “create a centralized complaint system for students receiving Federal military and veterans educational benefits to register complaints that can be tracked and responded to by the Departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs, Justice, and Education, the CFPB, and other relevant agencies.” To provide an institutional-level perspective, Frostburg State University is already in high compliance with VA and SAA mandates.  The proposed mandates are very similar to those already in place in Maryland.  Our Veterans Affairs Office is already on the lowest frequency of SAA and VA audits due to our excellent performance on all previous audits. 

Our concern is with the federal government instituting a centralized complaint system without first establishing whether an individual has already attempted to resolve their complaint with a university or college’s veterans affairs office or with the SAA representatives.  Too often complaints rise to the highest level of attention when the difficulty resides at the local level. We suggest that a complaint be permitted to rise to the agency level only when local processes or procedures have failed to resolve the issue. 

Furthermore, the text of the Executive Order as written does not give any institution a clear means to appeal complaints made against them. As documented in previous testimony to Congress on the implementation of the Post-9/11 GI Bill by various veterans education and higher education stakeholders including AASCU,[9] institutions have both received conflicting guidance from VA and have been subjected to VA delays in payment processing. This creates a scenario based on past history where institutions could be investigated by multiple federal agencies based on delays and confusion created by the federal government itself. .

Therefore AASCU strongly suggests that higher education stakeholders have significant input into the conceptualization of this centralized complaint system and its operational processes. This should not be taken as a repudiation of the idea that military and veteran students should be able to report valid complaints and have them acted upon by appropriate state or Federal agencies. AASCU does not want to see military and veteran students abused by those who would target their educational benefits. However, AASCU encourages caution and involvement of higher education stakeholders throughout the process of bringing this system online to ensure that the final complaint mechanism serves all parties truthfully and equitably.

            This leads me to my final point on behalf of AASCU: As this Executive Order is implemented, AASCU would like to see those implementing it pay special attention to increasing communication and data-sharing by the VA and DoD with higher education stakeholders. As the Post-9/11 GI Bill implementation process in particular has evolved, one consistent frustration on the part of higher education administrators trying to serve their military and veteran students is the lack of consistent, clear, and reliable communication from VA to the higher education community.

VA’s lack of guidance and inconsistent information-sharing on matters that seriously affect institutions’ ability to serve veteran students (e.g., the prospective VA garnishment of tuition and fee payments for unrelated debts, as detailed in a community letter to Secretary Shinseki on April 9, 2012[10]) has been well-documented in the media and in previous higher education testimony. While we appreciate that VA has had to learn a new way of doing business with higher education given the structure of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, higher education—and hence veteran students—have still suffered from VA’s lack of communication with the community.

Thus we strongly urge those responsible for implementing the Executive Order to use this opportunity to create a new climate of information and data-sharing in VA and DoD in particular, with higher education stakeholders as equal partners. This will ultimately benefit veteran and military students.

Frostburg State University and other AASCU institutions are eager to continue meeting the needs of our military members and veterans as well as their families. Our experience is that these returning military become solid students and campus leaders. We support these efforts to protect them. In fact, many of the measures presented in the Executive Order are already in place at Frostburg and within the State of Maryland.

Mr. Chairman, in closing, I again reiterate AASCU’s commitment to and recognition of the service of our nation’s servicemembers and veterans.  As part of that commitment, we strive to provide timely and accurate information to our students.  As such, we support the Administration’s efforts to ensure that servicemembers and veterans can make the best-informed educational choices appropriate to their unique needs.

Thank you for the opportunity to present this testimony on behalf of AASCU. I am happy to answer questions.