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Despite promises of relief, one Jax veteran still struggles to receive an education

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Raymon Troncoso
/
WJCT News
Mikeal Swenson currently goes to community college, but the Jacksonville resident and Army veteran is unsure of his ability to continue his education after a run-in with a for-profit university devastated his finances.

As the moratorium on student loan repayments nears its close, the Biden administration has touted nearly $12 billion in cancellations, much of it to assist borrowers who have worked in public or military service, or those who were misled by their schools.

But one Jacksonville veteran still flounders in a sea of debt after a run-in with a for-profit college that he says left him struggling to gain employment or continue his education.

"I feel like I've wasted so much time, and it's time I can't get back."

Mikeal Swenson, a Purple Heart recipient, served in the Army from 2006 to 2014. He was wounded in Afghanistan in May 2011 and started getting contacted by Full Sail University, based in the greater Orlando area, that same year.

In the end, he says, he exhausted his GI benefits with little to show for it.

"I come from dealing with a different set of predators," the 33-year-old said, recounting the efforts to recruit him after his traumatic brain injury. "I'm the first kid in my whole entire family to go to anything, to try to go to college. ... I didn't really know anything about accreditation. I just knew what these people were telling me."

Swenson finds himself in the awkward position outside the scope of Biden's relief efforts. If he had taken out loans to pay for his for-profit education, he may have had his debt forgiven under Biden's provision for disabled federal borrowers or borrowers who feel they were taken advantage of by for-profit institutions.

At the behest of Veterans Education Success, Swenson appeared last week before the Department of Education as it negotiates new regulations surrounding federal student aid. He hopes that by sharing his story, he can prevent the same thing from happening to other veterans.

"I hope the Department of Education considers the painful stories of veterans like me as it develops policies to better protect us from coercive recruiting and worthless degrees," he said to close his testimony.

Full Sail disputes the notion that it has exploited veterans like Swenson, who make up 12% of the school's student body.

"We at Full Sail are proud of the work we've done with veterans over the years, as well as the successes of our alumni," said Casey Tanous, director of public relations for Full Sail. "To be clear, there is nothing 'predatory' about Full Sail's involvement with its veteran students, and such claims are at best inaccurate."

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Raymon Troncoso
/
WJCT News
Mikeal Swenson's Purple Heart citation.

Indeed, many veterans have publicly touted their education at Full Sail, usually in the school's programs for video game development. But veterans advocates say Swenson's experience is not uncommon at for-profit institutions.

Air Force veteran Cerena Jones told CNBC her story of how a for-profit college reached out to her with promises of a high-quality education and a good-paying career after graduation, only to leave her hopelessly in debt with a discredited degree.

David Reyasbautista, a Marine, was promised that his education at a for-profit school would land him jobs at major car companies only to learn his certificate, earned after a lengthy and expensive tenure, didn't even qualify him for a job as a mechanic.

According to Chistopher Madaio, vice president for legal affairs at Veterans Education Success, for-profit colleges often seek out veterans because of their GI money — federal dollars from the Post 9/11 GI Bill that funds the full cost of a veteran's undergraduate education at a public, in-state university or a significant portion of their education at a private university — and other federal and state benefits they receive.

"Because of their status as a veteran, they target them with lies and other deceptions that, of course, turn out to be untrue later," Madaio said. "We try to let veterans know what options they have. Unfortunately, there are only a few, if any."

In 2019, NBC reported numerous complaints against for-profit colleges that were left unaddressed under the Trump administration, as then-Education Secretary Betsy DeVos pulled back regulations meant to exercise oversight and prevent for-profit institutions from defrauding students.

They cited Full Sail as one of the schools with the most official complaints filed to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that year, at No. 4.

Full Sail offers what it calls "accelerated degree programs," bachelor's degrees in 20 to 29 months and associate degrees in a single year, with annual tuition costs reaching well above $20,000. Total tuition costs for an undergraduate degree in the 20-month program range from $45,500 to $89,000.

The Better Business Bureau lists 60 complaints against Full Sail over the last three years, including at least three from veterans with billing issues.

In those instances, Full Sail offered to waive charges or release withheld transcripts as "act(s) of good will" to resolve the complaints, but held they were "not an admission of error or wrongdoing on our part."

Swenson was sold on Full Sail after receiving emails from a Navy veteran describing his own military service. He told Swenson he had achieved senior rank in the Navy and had recently gotten a master's degree at Full Sail.

Swenson tried to get his bachelor's at the school twice, from 2013 to 2015, before dropping out of the program and then re-enrolling from 2017 to 2018, leaving the school after receiving an associate degree and no longer being able to afford tuition without taking out loans.

"They ate up my entire GI Bill and my yellow ribbon fund, which would have covered four years at [Florida State College at Jacksonville], where I'm at right now, and paid for my housing," he said.

All in all, it cost him nearly $140,000 to attend, taking the $112,000 maximum of his GI Bill and $27,000 of his yellow ribbon fund.

Swenson says he was drastically oversold on the education Full Sail would provide, which promised a good-paying job and career support upon the completion of his degree.

"I really wanted to go to school for music, under the pretense of I had just spent 6 1/2 years doing what everybody else had told me I was going to do."

The U.S. Department of Education scorecard for the school's music program shows the median earning of graduates is a little over $28,000, with the median amount of debt incurred upon graduation being $34,500.

"I thought I was making an investment. I thought that I was learning something that I could take and master and get a job. And they assured me of those things," Swenson said. "You know, I tried for years afterwards, and I didn't just try, I freelanced. I went and did live sound for bands. ... But I don't have a quantifiable skill set just because of who gave me my degree."

Swenson now attends FSCJ, where he is about to complete his first year of school with a 3.5 GPA. He had to restart his associate degree after learning that, because Full Sail is not regionally accredited, only eight credits from what would have traditionally been a two-year program would transfer into the Florida school system.

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Full Sail continued to contact Swenson with job leads, none of which panned out, he said, and tried to entice him to return to complete his bachelor's degree.

"Half of me thinks that that was just an attempt to bleed me dry again and get me to take out student loans," he said.

Now, he's taken out $24,000 in federal loans to pay for his schooling at FSCJ. Because most of his previous institution's credits didn't transfer, Swenson is seeking to get his GI Bill money refunded through the VA, but with the VA still understaffed and stretched thin due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he's not sure when his application will get processed, and he's less sure of what he's going to do if it's denied.

The current plan is to finish his new associate degree and then transfer to Florida State University to get a degree in electrical engineering.

Reporter Raymon Troncoso joined WJCT News in June of 2021 after concluding his fellowship with Report For America, where he was embedded with Capitol News Illinois covering Illinois state government with a focus on policy and equity. You can reach him at (904) 358-6319 or Rtroncoso@wjct.org and follow him on Twitter @RayTroncoso.