Copter schools sanc­tioned

Gov­ern­ment or­ders five more to stop en­rolling vet­er­ans af­ter GI Bill abuses.

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - By Alan Zarembo alan. zarembo@ latimes. com Twit­ter: @AlanZarembo

The gov­ern­ment has or­dered at least five ad­di­tional he­li­copter train­ing pro­grams to stop en­rolling more vet­er­ans, part of a con­tin­u­ing crack­down to end GI Bill abuses that have cost taxpayers tens of mil­lions of dol­lars.

The latest re­stric­tions have been im­posed on pro­grams in Ari­zona, Florida, Texas and Washington that have trained dozens of vet­er­ans at a cost of up to $ 150,000 each for two years — all billed to the gov­ern­ment.

The ac­tion fol­lowed a halt on new en­roll­ments at South­ern Utah Univer­sity in Cedar City and Yava­pai Col­lege in Prescott, Ariz., two of the most pop­u­lar and ex­pen­sive pro­grams, which rou­tinely charged more than $ 250,000 for a two- year course.

The U. S. Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs be­gan clamp­ing down in March af­ter the Los An­ge­les Times re­ported that he­li­copter f light com­pa­nies were ex­ploit­ing a loop­hole in the new­est GI Bill to train vet­er­ans en­tirely at gov­ern­ment ex­pense, with no cap on what they could charge.

The pro­grams were cited for vi­o­lat­ing a re­quire­ment that non­vet­er­ans make up at least 15% of stu­dents in VA- funded pro­grams, a rule aimed at en­sur­ing that pro­grams don’t ex­ist solely on GI Bill money. The VA hadn’t been en­forc­ing the rule.

The crack­down is ex­pected to sig­nif­i­cantly re­duce he­li­copter f light train­ing for vet­er­ans. Even the least ex­pen­sive pro­grams have found it dif­fi­cult to at­tract other stu­dents.

At Big Bend Com­mu­nity Col­lege in Moses Lake, Wash., where tu­ition and he­li­copter f light fees run just un­der $ 82,000 for two years, 11 of the 12 stu­dents were vet­er­ans.

“We didn’t start the pro­gram for vet­er­ans,” said Doug Sly, a spokesman. “But con­sciously or sub­con­sciously, you knew those would be the only peo­ple with the re­sources to get in.”

He said the col­lege is ap­peal­ing the VA sus­pen­sion.

The VA is al­low­ing vet­er­ans al­ready en­rolled in the pro­grams to com­plete their train­ing.

At least one school, Palm Beach State Col­lege in Florida, has said it plans to shut down its pro­gram when cur­rent stu­dents fin­ish.

Of 115 he­li­copter stu­dents there, 109 were vet­er­ans, VA au­di­tors found. “They’re kind of stuck as pawns in the mid­dle of this,” said Thomas Vo, Palm Beach State’s di­rec­tor of fi­nan­cial aid.

Even vet­er­ans who com­plete their train­ing face a dif­fi­cult fu­ture.

He­li­copter stu­dents gen­er­ally earn their pi­lot cre­den­tials with 200 to 300 hours in the air, then go to work as f light in­struc­tors to reach at least 1,000 hours — the min­i­mum that most em­ploy­ers and their in­sur­ance com­pa­nies re­quire.

But that model only works if there are enough new stu­dents to train.

“Un­less some­thing changes in terms of stu­dent load, we won’t be able to hire,” said Dan Crowe, the owner of Palm Beach He­li­copters, which is con­tracted by Palm Beach State.

Ben­jamin Sam­ples, a 35year- old Army vet­eran who moved to Florida from Seat­tle and is about half­way through his train­ing there, said he is not giv­ing up.

“If it’s some­thing you love, you trudge on,” he said. “That’s what’s hold­ing me on at present.”

Un­der the Post- 9/ 11 GI Bill, which took ef­fect in 2009, vet­er­ans who served on ac­tive duty for at least three years af­ter Septem­ber 2001 are el­i­gi­ble for 36 months of full tu­ition at public col­leges and univer­si­ties.

Pay­ments to pro­pri­etary f light schools are capped at $ 11,563 a year. But by work­ing as con­trac­tors for public in­sti­tu­tions, the com­pa­nies have been able to avoid that cap.

The pro­grams at Yava­pai and South­ern Utah of­ten trained vet­er­ans in ex­pen­sive he­li­copters rather than the ba­sic two- and four- seat mod­els that other stu­dents used.

South­ern Utah, where train­ing for a sin­gle vet­eran could top $ 500,000, was the big­gest of­fender. Many vet­er­ans f lew a tur­bine- pow- ered Euro­copter As­tar for $ 1,800 an hour — six times the price of train­ing in the cheap­est model.

Even now, a VA spokesman said the agency has no con­trol over which he­li­copters vet­er­ans train on.

Cindy Barnes, a spokes­woman for Chan­dler- Gil­bert Com­mu­nity Col­lege near Phoenix, where he­li­copter train­ing costs about $ 110,000 for two years, said eco­nom­i­cal pro­grams were pay­ing the price for abuses by costlier ones.

The VA found that all 25 he­li­copter stu­dents there were vet­er­ans. Sev­eral non­vet­er­ans have since en­rolled, and the col­lege is hop­ing the VA will soon lift its sus­pen­sion, Barnes said.

“We feel like they’re pun­ish­ing the good guys along with the bad,” she said.

Leg­is­la­tion in­tro­duced in Congress this year would close the loop­hole by cap­ping yearly tu­ition and fees at $ 20,235, the limit placed on all pri­vate col­leges and univer­si­ties. Cur­rent stu­dents would be ex­empt from the cap for two years.

The bill has been ap­proved by the House Com­mit­tee on Vet­er­ans Af­fairs and could reach the House f loor for a vote this sum­mer.

Flight pro­grams say the cap is un­rea­son­ably low and would es­sen­tially end f light train­ing for vet­er­ans. The He­li­copter Assn. In­ter­na­tional, an in­dus­try group, has been lob­by­ing against the leg­is­la­tion.

“The av­er­age vet­eran can not af­ford nor get a loan to make up that dif­fer­ence of the dra­matic re­duc­tion in fund­ing,” Matt Zuccaro, a Viet­nam vet­eran who leads the group, said this month.

An online pe­ti­tion against the bill has at­tracted more than 7,000 sig­na­tures.

“I served my coun­try in or­der to ob­tain the Post- 9/ 11 GI Bill ben­e­fits of f light school,” one signer wrote.

“It would be a huge let­down, and se­ri­ously wrong to have served over 5 years only to have this op­por­tu­nity stripped from me.”

Don Bartletti Los An­ge­les Times

THE HE­LI­COPTER train­ing pro­gram at Yava­pai Col­lege in Prescott, Ariz., was pe­nal­ized in March.

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