Nearly $400 million went to a veteran retraining program as part of the American Rescue PlanAugust 25, 2022 at 6:00 a.m. EDTJacqueline Culbreth, 61, an Air Force veteran formerly enrolled at the Future Tech Career Institute, said she “jumped” at the chance to take classes there after being laid off from a well-paying job, hoping she could increase her earning power. (Thomas Simonetti/For The Washington Post)Listen16 minComment on this storyCommentGift ArticleThe offer to military veterans left unemployed by the coronavirus pandemic was tantalizing: A year of online courses courtesy of the federal government. Graduates would be set up for good jobs in high-demand fields from app development to graphic design.“I jumped at it,” said Jacqueline Culbreth, 61, an Air Force veteran laid off in 2020 from her job as a construction estimator in Orlando. “I was looking forward basically to upping my earning power.”But more than a year after enrolling at the Chicago-based Future Tech Career Institute, Culbreth is no closer to her goal of landing a job in cloud computing. Like many former service members enrolled at the for-profit trade school under a pandemic relief program run by the Department of Veterans Affairs, she soon found herself immersed in discouraging chaos.AdvertisementSchedules were disorganized and courses did not follow a set syllabus. School-provided laptops couldn’t run critical software. And during long stretches of scheduled class time, students were left without instruction, according to interviews with Culbreth and 10 other veterans who attended the school.In February, VA cut off tuition payments to Future Tech, leaving Culbreth and more than 300 other veterans in the lurch.The disarray at Future Tech is the most painful example of broader problems with the $386 million Veteran Rapid Retraining Assistance Program, or VRRAP. Many schools proved unable to attract students or deliver promised services. In addition to Future Tech, nearly 90 schools have had their approvals yanked, according to VA officials, including several that were actively serving about 100 veterans. Some schools were cut off amid allegations of predatory practices, while others simply went out of business.As of Aug. 1, only about 6,800 veterans had enrolled in the program, far fewer than the 17,250 Congress created it to serve, the agency said; just 397 had landed new jobs.
The Covid Money Trail
It was the largest burst of spending in U.S. history — two years, six bills and more than $5 trillion intended to break the deadly grip of the coronavirus pandemic. The money spared the U.S. economy from ruin and put vaccines into millions of arms, but it also invited unprecedented levels of fraud.
In The Covid Money Trail, The Washington Post investigates: Where did all that money go?
The story of VRRAP illustrates Washington’s often losing battle to effectively spend the torrent of cash Congress threw at the coronavirus pandemic starting in March 2020. In all, lawmakers approved more than $5 trillion for covid relief, an unprecedented wave of emergency loans, grants and other assistance intended to fight the virus and pull America out of its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. But haste and carelessness in crafting the aid created a wellspring for fraud and waste — a mess that hundreds of federal investigators are still trying to clean up.In VRRAP’s case, Congress bungled both the program’s design and its timing, critics said, diminishing the likelihood of attracting students. As of last week, roughly half the money had been spent, leaving VA on track to return tens of millions of dollars to the U.S. Treasury when the program expires in December.Lawmakers didn’t address VA’s long struggle to police for-profit schools that engage in deceptive practices, as they set up a program that attracted many for-profit entities. Future Tech had been barred from receiving VA tuition payments for several courses in 2012 after Illinois officials concluded that the school — then doing business under a different name — had submitted false reports and misled veterans. The school regained its eligibility in 2017, Future Tech said in a statement. Under VRRAP, it charged VA more than $25,000 per student per year, according to a tuition statement seen by The Post — just under the federal cap of $26,000 and about $7,000 higher than other computer boot camps approved by the program.Future Tech said the school saw “tremendous success” with the pandemic program. The company described its earlier loss of eligibility for VA funding as the result of “minor” violations that have since been resolved. Its tuition and fees for VRRAP were appropriate, the statement said, for a year-long, 18 hour-per-week program that includes a laptop, practice exams and vouchers to take certification exams.Future Tech acknowledged that illness and supply-chain snarls caused by the pandemic disrupted some courses for some students, but said the impacts were limited. It castigated Illinois officials for moving too hastily to shut off VRRAP funds.“This decision disrupted the training for more than 300 veterans when just a handful had issues that could and should have been dealt with individually,” the company said. “We will never know what could have been achieved.”‘We wanted to help them’The troubles with VRRAP were achingly predictable: A similar program rolled out in 2012 — the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program, or VRAP — also failed to attract students and was widely regarded as a flop. Nonetheless, veterans advocates began pushing for another education benefit after the pandemic plunged the economy into free-fall, leaving many veterans unemployed.Lawmakers did not include the program in the first covid aid package, the $2-trillion Cares Act signed by President Donald Trump. Instead, they waited until 2021, adding it to the $1.9-trillion American Rescue Plan Act signed by President Biden.By then, VRRAP was a solution to a problem that no longer existed. At the height of the pandemic in 2020, veterans experience …