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A dispute about embattled Thomas Jefferson School of Law helped spark the federal government’s recent decision to strip California of its ability to determine which schools can accept students’ GI Bill benefits.
California’s Department of Veterans Affairs suspended Thomas Jefferson from enrolling new students with veterans benefits in late 2017 and removed the school from the GI Bill program all together last year. The state acted in response to the San Diego law school being placed on probation by its national accreditor.
But the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs believed the California’s agency’s actions were improper because the school still had accreditation while it was on probation.
The California VA eventually reversed course and reinstated the law school, but not before Thomas Jefferson students with veterans benefits had to rely on the school to step in to provide financial support in the government’s place for several months.
And with Thomas Jefferson facing the potential loss of its national accreditation, those students could again find themselves in a similar predicament.
Probation Spells Trouble
The Post-9/11 GI Bill provides veterans — and in some cases their family members or spouses — with financial support for education and housing.
Thomas Jefferson has actively welcomed students with GI Bill benefits, and it received roughly $4.4 million in tuition and fee payments for beneficiaries from fiscal 2009 through fiscal 2017.
The school has also participated in the Yellow Ribbon Program, an initiative in which a school agrees to make funds available to students above the maximum benefits they receive through the GI Bill. The federal VA matches the extra funds provided to students.
But Thomas Jefferson’s myriad issues on other fronts jeopardized its ability to keep receiving students’ veterans benefits.
In November 2017, the American Bar Association placed the school on probation due to concerns about its “present and anticipated financial resources, admissions practices, academic program, and bar passage outcomes.”
For example, just 31 percent of the school’s first-time takers passed the July 2016 California bar exam. The law school tied for the second-worst performance among the state’s 21 ABA-accredited institutions.
Meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson had struggled financially since taking on $130 million in debt to construct a state-of-the-art facility in San Diego’s East Village that opened for classes in 2011.
The school’s ABA probation caught the attention of the California Department of Veterans Affairs, also known as CalVet. The agency notified Thomas Jefferson in a letter dated Dec. 29, 2017, that it was suspended from receiving veterans benefits from any newly enrolled students effective immediately.
CalVet gave Thomas Jefferson until Feb. 27, 2018, to come back into compliance by meeting one of two conditions: The first option was demonstrating it was no longer on ABA probation, and the second was applying for approval in the GI Bill program as a non-accredited law school.
On March 15, 2018, CalVet notified Thomas Jefferson it was withdrawing its ability to accept GI Bill benefits from new or current students. The state wrote Thomas Jefferson was not in compliance with the standards necessary to be approved either as an accredited or unaccredited school.
Karin Sherr, Thomas Jefferson’s general counsel and interim president, told Voice of San Diego the law school was “extremely disappointed” the state “had mistakenly taken the position that the law school’s status as being on probation with the ABA meant it could not accept further GI Bill benefits from its veteran students.”
She said CalVet’s determination was incorrect because the law school remained ABA accredited, and she also asserted that “ABA accreditation was not required for accepting veteran benefits.”
Impact on Students
Thomas Jefferson student Stephanie Germani began to worry about losing the ability to use her GI Bill benefits soon after the school was placed on probation.
A school financial official told her in November 2017 that he did not believe her benefits would be impacted because the school had not lost accreditation, according to an email Voice of San Diego reviewed.
But in March 2018, Germani learned from checking the VA’s website that Thomas Jefferson had been removed from the GI Bill program. Eventually, the school sent an email to students acknowledging the state agency’s decision but assuring them the “law school will provide eligible students with benefits similar to those they would receive from the VA. This includes comparable tuition, housing (not available for active duty military) and book allowance.”
Sherr said 17 Thomas Jefferson students were using VA benefits at the time. The students were able to finish the spring 2018 semester with those benefits before being cut off from using them at the school, according to the federal VA.
Germani, who receives GI Bill benefits through her ex-husband, said Thomas Jefferson pledging to provide comparable financial support to the VA funding was greatly appreciated. She took the school up on the offer for both summer and fall 2018.
“The VA erroneously taking away GI Bill funding for Thomas Jefferson students when the ABA placed us on probation could have completely derailed my legal education,” Germani said. “I’m so thankful that my school stepped up during what could have been a very devastating time financially and emotionally so I could continue my education.”
Sherr acknowledged, however, that the school’s loss of GI Bill benefits may have affected prospective students’ determinations about whether to start at Thomas Jefferson in fall 2018.
“The decision didn’t have any impact for spring 2018, but I am sure applicants who were hoping to use their GI Bill benefits in the fall of 2018 were disappointed that the law school was unable to accept those benefits at that time,” Sherr said.
Feds Intervene in Support of Thomas Jefferson
In summer 2018, the federal VA sent a letter to CalVet highlighting concerns about its work approving schools to receive GI Bill benefits.
The first issue raised in the Aug. 24 letter was the “improper suspension and/or withdrawal” of schools’ ability to accept veterans benefits.
In regard to Thomas Jefferson, the state “inappropriately took action as if the programs were not accredited and advised the school to request a waiver from VA,” the federal letter said. “Thomas Jefferson School of Law’s programs were accredited at the time, although in a probationary status.”
The letter concluded by stating that the federal government looked forward to California’s “timely resolution of these performance concerns.”
Less than a week later, the federal VA released a national advisory urging state agencies in charge of approving which schools can receive GI Bill benefits not to overrule other bodies’ determinations about whether a school should be accredited or licensed.
The memo said “it is inefficient and a waste of VA resources for a [state approving agency] to repeat their work and expend further resources in an attempt to confirm or overrule their determinations.” The advisory was issued as a result of CalVet’s actions, the federal VA later said.
Despite the August communications, Thomas Jefferson said it wasn’t until January 2019 that CalVet notified the law school it could accept again accept veterans benefits.
The reinstatement was a result of the national advisory the federal VA issued, the state said, and it was retroactive to September 2018.
CalVet “made a mistake and the law school is glad that the correct standard was ultimately used,” Thomas Jefferson’s Sherr said.
The school notified students via email in late January of the reinstatement, which it called “incredibly great news.”
Students were expected to repay the retroactive payments they received directly from the VA for housing and books. The VA sends tuition payments directly to schools.
Sherr said the GI Bill covers up to $24,476.79 in annual net tuition at Thomas Jefferson, a maximum housing benefit of $2,643 a month and up to $1,000 per year in books. Thomas Jefferson’s full-time J.D. tuition for the 2019-2020 school year is $51,000, according to its website.
Through the Yellow Ribbon program, the school and VA fund the full net tuition after the tuition payment of $24,476.79 has been reached.
California VA Relieved of GI Bill Duties
CalVet’s handling of Thomas Jefferson’s GI Bill eligibility was one of many instances in which the federal VA felt the state had fallen short with such work.
In a Sept. 6, 2019, letter to CalVet outlining those alleged shortcomings, the federal government said it was not going to sign an agreement for California to handle the GI Bill approval process for fiscal 2020.
“Over the last three years, CSAAVE’s performance has significantly declined to an unacceptable level, impacting the trust of veterans in the GI Bill approval process,” the VA wrote.
The federal VA said it would be taking over the state’s GI Bill duties on Oct. 1, 2019. CalVet initially claimed it would continue its GI Bill role despite not receiving a new contract, but on Sept. 30 it sent school administrators a message in which it acknowledged the federal government would be assuming the work.
Sherr said the law school believes the federal VA taking over for California “may help to ensure other schools are not adversely impacted” as it was.
Rep. Mike Levin, a Democrat whose district includes parts of San Diego County, recently introduced legislation in Congress designed to give the federal government and state agencies greater authority to suspend schools from participating in the GI Bill program.
The Protect the GI Bill Act would permit a state agency or federal government to prohibit future students from using their veterans benefits at schools subject to a negative action by the institution’s accrediting agency, including accreditation probation or sanctions.
“It solves the Thomas Jefferson problem,” said Carrie Wofford, president of the advocacy group Veterans Education Success.
The bill, H.R. 4625, also addresses other issues the federal VA highlighted in explaining why it took over the GI Bill duties from CalVet.
“The legislation will make what is the common sense and ethically right thing to do now also technically the right thing to do,” Wofford said.
The legislation was recently approved by the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs with bipartisan support and is expected to be voted on by the full House.
Thomas Jefferson Isn’t Out of the Woods
Regardless of what happens with the bill, Thomas Jefferson is in danger of again losing its ability to accept GI Bill benefits.
In May, the American Bar Association’s legal education council voted to strip the school of its ABA accreditation. The panel highlighted concerns about the school’s finances, admissions practices and rigor of its educational offerings.
Thomas Jefferson remains accredited while the appeals process runs its course.
There are 12 students currently receiving GI Bill benefits at the school, Sherr said. She reiterated the school’s position that ABA accreditation is not required for a law school to be able to accept GI Bill benefits, but the federal VA disagreed in a statement to Voice of San Diego.
“In order to be approved for GI Bill benefits, programs at law schools must be accredited by an organization recognized by the U.S. Department of Education,” said Susan Carter, a spokeswoman for the federal VA. “The American Bar Association (ABA) is the only accreditor of law school programs recognized by the Department of Education.”
Wofford said Levin’s legislation would provide even stronger support for the VA’s position on the issue.
Meanwhile, Germani hopes she will be able to use veterans benefits to complete her final semester at Thomas Jefferson this spring and take the bar exam soon after graduating.
“I’m already 42,” she said. “To delay taking this test even longer won’t give me as much time to practice” law.