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The Latest Coronavirus Relief Bill Includes A Provision That Will Help Veterans

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: For years, veterans have been heavily recruited by online, for-profit schools. Many vets wind up paying thousands of dollars for degrees that can be worthless. A provision inside the COVID relief package aims to help address that. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: The so-called 90/10 rule forces schools that take federal funding to get at least 10% of their income from elsewhere. It's kind of a free-market test. If a school can't get even 10% of students to pay their own money, the school probably isn't worthy of government funding. But there's a loophole. The schools can count federal GI Bill money toward that 10%. The result? For-profit schools go after veterans.

KENDRICK HARRISON: I don't know where they were getting these recruiters from, but, man, they were good (laughter).

LAWRENCE: Iraq vet Kendrick Harrison (ph) says Argosy University pursued him with emails and phone calls and convinced him to quit his job and go to school full time. He racked up thousands in debt. And it turns out many of his class credits are not even recognized by other schools - same thing happened to Army vet Tasha Berkhalter (ph)...

TASHA BERKHALTER: I have a bachelor's of science from ITT Tech that I can't even use. Nobody recognizes it.

LAWRENCE: ...And Army vet Jarrod Thoma (ph).

JARROD THOMA: Couldn't get out of it - I wanted to transfer. I looked at multiple universities. And they wouldn't accept the credits in transfer. I would have to basically start new.

LAWRENCE: So-called diploma mills cheating veterans and putting them in debt - that eventually got the attention of Congress. But the well-funded for-profit school lobby has fought against change for years. Even the new law won't close the loophole until 2023. That's way too late for veterans like Harrison, Berkhalter and Thoma.

CARRIE WOFFORD: So they have applied - we have helped thousands apply - for what's called borrower defense to repayment...

LAWRENCE: Carrie Wofford is with Veterans Education Success, a nonprofit.

WOFFORD: ...Which means a student who was defrauded should have his student loans forgiven by the education department. And the Biden administration is inheriting a big mess with this. Betsy DeVos, as the Trump education secretary, was hauled into federal court and chastised as recently as October for a Kafkaesque process for these defrauded student loans.

LAWRENCE: That was a quote from the judge - "Kafkaesque" - because the Trump administration seemed to be denying these claims thousands at a time without explanation. Trump also vetoed a bipartisan bill to help defrauded veterans. The new leadership at the Department of Education has begun to review the issue. Veterans like Tasha Berkhalter can only wait. She owes about $100,000 in student debt.

BERKHALTER: It's so easy for them - for people, for creditors, for banks. You know, they see that you're a veteran, and their eyes light up. And then when they see (laughter) all those student loans, you know, it's like, well, thank you for serving our country, but there's really nothing we can do for you right now.

LAWRENCE: It's more than just getting out of debt. She thought serving in the army would lead to a stable career and future.

BERKHALTER: So it would be nice to provide better for my kids and not have to rely on WIC and Medicaid and food stamps. You know, not that that's a bad thing. But I don't want to live like that, you know, for the rest of my life.

LAWRENCE: Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.