At Liberty University, Veterans’ Complaints Keep Coming

By Alec MacGillis
Liberty Federal investigation
Liberty University earns substantial revenues from veterans whose tuition is supported by the GI Bill, but the evangelical school continues to generate complaints. (Photo by Taber Andrew Bain/Creative Commons)

When an Army veteran was looking for somewhere to get an online aviation degree a couple of years ago in hopes of becoming a pilot, Liberty University advertised having the speed and flexibility she needed: accelerated eight-week courses with start times throughout the year and 52 affiliated flight schools around the country where she could get the required flight training. She signed up for the program, paying with the GI Bill benefits that have made military veterans such a reliable source of revenue for Liberty and other universities with large online programs.

But when her husband, who was still on active duty, learned he would be transferred from Georgia to Hawaii, she discovered that the lone Liberty flight affiliate on Oahu, George’s Aviation Services in Honolulu, did not offer the accelerated courses Liberty had touted. This meant that it would take her double the time to complete her program, two years rather than one, and would cost U.S. taxpayers more along the way, she stated in a complaint she filed with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“There was not one time where it was clearly stated that some flight affiliates do not accept students in the accelerated program,” she wrote in her complaint. “I would not have enrolled knowing that I didn’t have the option at every flight affiliate and now I am stuck with having very few courses remaining and an inability to continue in the program.”

The complaint was one of more than a dozen provided in response to a public records request about Liberty that was filed with the Veterans Affairs department’s GI Bill Feedback Tool and shared with ProPublica. In 2018, ProPublica published an investigation of the highly lucrative online operation at Liberty, the evangelical college in Lynchburg, Virginia, founded in 1971 by the Rev. Jerry Falwell. The investigation showed how under the leadership of Falwell’s son, Jerry Falwell Jr., who took over after his father’s death in 2007, Liberty turned its online division into the financial engine of its burgeoning campus and political network, helping drive the university’s net assets from $150 million in 2007 to more than $2.5 billion in 2018.

The article revealed how much Liberty — the second-largest provider of online education after the University of Phoenix — relied on taxpayer funding for tuition revenue: Its students received more than $772 million in total aid from the Department of Education by 2017, plus more than $40 million from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Military veterans are such a big market for Liberty University Online that it has a whole division assigned to them.

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And the article described a “steep drop-off in quality from the traditional college to the online courses” that was “openly acknowledged among Liberty faculty.” It showed how the university managed to keep its costs in delivering online courses exceedingly low by relying on low-paid instructors and course designers. This helped explain how Liberty, which is a nonprofit organization, managed to pocket $215 million of net income on nearly $1 billion in revenue in 2016, but it also helped explain why students were filing complaints with Virginia’s higher education oversight agency.

It was a couple dozen such complaints, obtained via a public records request, that gave rise to the ProPublica investigation, revealing a much deeper iceberg of concerns about Liberty’s online operation. (In the 2018 article, Falwell Jr. described the university’s financial management as shrewd and defended the quality of its instruction.)

There have been dramatic changes at Liberty since then: In the summer of 2020, Falwell Jr. resigned as president after news reports of extramarital activities involving him and his wife. (He said that his wife had had an affair but that he had not.) Meanwhile, the university community has witnessed the realization of the goal that Falwell cited in championing Donald Trump for president in 2016: the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Jerry Falwell, Jr.
Under former president Jerry Falwell Jr., Liberty University’s online division helped drive the university’s net assets from $150 million in 2007 to $2.5 billion in 2018. Falwell is pictured here speaking at the Mar-A-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida, on Dec. 18, 2019. (Photo by Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons)

Throughout all the upheaval, though, complaints about online education have kept coming, as shown by the VA’s records, which were provided to Dahn Shaulis, a higher education blogger who filed a records request for complaints and then shared the agency’s response with ProPublica. Those records do not indicate whether the VA took any action in response to the complaints.

A spokesperson for Liberty said in a statement that the university is “not presently aware of any negative findings” by the VA for any such complaints. “In several circumstances,” the statement continued, “including one referenced, the VA independently determined the student’s complaint to be unfounded and did not request Liberty’s review.” (The spokesperson said the university is legally barred “from disclosing certain specific details about individual students.”) He added that Liberty “has trained hundreds-of-thousands of students and naturally not every student was fully satisfied with their experience, but we are ranked much lower with regard to VA complaints per capita compared to our online competitors.”

Asked about the complaints against Liberty, a VA spokesperson replied with a statement that noted: “VA continues to review and monitor all GI Bill schools’ compliance with applicable statutes and regulations, and when necessary, will take appropriate action and provide GI Bill students, the public, and state or federal partners with timely information and options.” The statement added, “Actions taken in response to a reported issue are not shared on the GI Bill Feedback Tool.”

The woman moving to Hawaii was not the only aggrieved aviation student. Another complaint, filed early this year, alleged a “bait and switch tactic” by Liberty to gain a student’s enrollment. The university offered a course meant to allow a helicopter pilot to transition their skills into an airplane certification, combining that training with prerequisite courses that would together result in a full-tuition load. The transition course required special approval, and the applicant applied for and received it, and then went through the requisite “financial check-in” portal to confirm his payment via the GI Bill.

Only after he’d done all that did it emerge that, according to the complaint, the transition course was in fact nonexistent. But he was signed up for the prerequisite courses, which he would never have bothered to take on his own. After he protested, the university unenrolled him completely from the university, which he took as “retribution.” He asked that the VA “place [Liberty] in a review status where they are forced to administer the program in a more circumspect manner.”

For another veteran, the problems started later in his time at Liberty, when he was just a few credits shy of getting his degree. In May 2021, he suddenly got notice that his financial aid had been suspended because he had supposedly fallen short of Satisfactory Academic Progress standards, even though his GPA was well above the 2.0 given as the minimum necessary on the financial aid website. The university then demanded he pay $2,934 to make up the difference, which he said made it impossible to complete his degree. He was unable to reach anyone to resolve the matter. “I have made several calls to the school and no one has been willing or able to help in getting the information needed to ensure that this issue gets resolved,” he wrote. “I have filed several appeals to this and all have been denied but they have refused to say why or ask for any additional information from me in any way.”

Lack of communication was a recurring theme in the complaints. Another student, entering her last semester in the school of education, had reached out to Liberty early this year to let the school know that due to health problems, she would be unable to act as a student teacher and would need to transfer into a nonlicensure track as a result. But she said she received incorrect information and was placed into the wrong class and from there fell into a morass of delays and unreturned emails, as emails are the only way that the school lets students communicate with the “gate coordinators” who oversee advancement through the education degree program.

“Advising has told me that they are required to answer in 48 hours, but that has never been the case for me,” she wrote. “At this point, I feel like they have taken my money and the money of the VA and are now leaving me high and dry. They do not seem to care that I am going to be unable to graduate and finish my degree after years of work. I have invested countless hours trying to meet their requirements and have faced nothing but misinformation, incorrect information [and] people passing the buck to someone else.” She concluded, “I feel like I have wasted my time and money as well as the money the VA has invested in my education.”

Yet another veteran offered a more systematic criticism this spring. Liberty, his complaint asserted, was failing GI Bill recipients on three levels: The university fails to certify their GI Bill benefits properly, which often creates a welter of unnecessary debts and offsets; it fails to provide proper academic advising, with the consequence that “veterans can get over their heads and fail classes or not be adequately informed about course loads”; and it fails to provide adequate academic support for the online programs, with communications limited mostly to emails. “They do not answer their phones besides the call centers that cannot provide detailed support no matter what,” he wrote.

For another veteran who was seeking a Ph.D. in health science and ended up in a billing dispute with the university, the most confounding part was his sense that Liberty was indifferent to the troubles he was experiencing. “Little do they know this causes undue stress in our lives,” he wrote in his complaint, “but I’m sure they do not care because they are only in it for the money.”

Esta historia fue publicada originalmente por ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive ProPublica’s historias más grandes tan pronto como se publiquen.

Alec MacGillis covers politics and government for ProPublica.

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10 pensamientos sobre “At Liberty University, Veterans’ Complaints Keep Coming”

  1. Brian patricio

    Liberty U is the college campus version of a megachurch. It is a cesspool of idol worship, corruption, cultist legalism, abuse, and covering up of rapes.

    Give me one reason why this snakepit shouldn’t be forcibly shut down.

    1. brayan,

      I am not fond of Liberty, but I know a number of people who are graduates of the university, including ministers, and they all love their university. I’ve been around a number of universities, and I only love 2 of them. It means something that godly men are coming out of the place with affection for where they received their training.

      Have a little nuance.

      Also, God could forcibly shut down the world any time He wanted to; yet He chooses not to. Forcing our will on others is not a Christian way. Be careful of letting judgment speak instead of faith.

      1. Brian patricio

        John Young,

        I know Liberty grads too. I went to HS with a few. That doesn’t mean I support their choice of university.

        Even before the truly indefensible and abhorrent was revealed (covering up rapes, protecting rapists, bullying and ostracizing rape victims), LU was a hotbed of Pharisaical legalism, man-made phony rules–students would constantly get “demerits” for various and sundry preposterous minor rules violations. Remember that Mr. Falwell Sr. was a segregationist. That’s not the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it’s a man-made gospel.

        Someone has to call a spade a spade. I may be on the right politically speaking generally, but Liberty is a cesspool and I am not afraid to say it.

  2. Ahhh nothing says love and Christ like an evangelical and liberty university. Why anyone goes there is beyond me. Enough has been written about the whole Falwell clan starting with daddy Falwell and bob jones university being all full of love and diversity. Well after the IRS forced them to enroll black students in the mid seventies. But even then no dating them white girls. Google it if you doubt. And they didn’t think to say what is transferable. I’m a veteran and if I wasted my money and time I wouldn’t be nice as my sister of the uniform and cross.

  3. I looked into several of these issues and found some conflicting information.

    Liberty does offer an online aviation degree, which is a 120 hour or approximately 3.5 year program on a standard university class schedule just like most all other 4 year degrees. The online degree cannot be completed in a year as the article alleges is possible. Also, the online courses offered by Liberty are referred to as accelerated because they are shortened to 8-week intervals on a year round schedule instead of the typical longer fall and spring semester (~14 week) schedule. Affiliates accept students in the accelerated program, because all online students are technically in the accelerated program. I’m not sure if the residential program (on campus) requires students to use Liberty’s flight school instead of an affiliate, but I think that online students are eligible to do the flight training at Liberty.

    The way that the online program works is the flight training is a lab course with fees that are sent to the affiliate to cover your flight training.
    https://www.liberty.edu/aeronautics/flight-course-lab-fees/
    With a fixed payment effectively per year, an affiliate in a high cost area cannot offer as many flight hours for the same money as a low cost area.

  4. I also wanted to address the complaint about the non-existent rotary wing to fixed wing class.
    The class is legitimate as seen here:
    https://www.liberty.edu/online/courses/AVIA334/

    It is pretty common knowledge that any accredited 4 year program has prerequisites to allow for the curriculum to build on itself. Publishing a complaint about trying to bypass the prerequisites because the student didn’t want to take them and then protesting that seems that both the author of the article and the student really don’t understand how a degree program works, or at least what a prerequisite means. Given this basic fallacy of argument and how quickly I was able to find the specific course, I think the journalistic integrity is absent here to at least do something more than repeat the angry complaint of someone who doesn’t want to follow the rules that everyone else has to follow and to at least do some cursory fact checking before declaring that this non-existent class was used as bait and switch to entrap the student into properly taking the necessary prerequisite courses.

    What is likely happening here is that the student was trying to use the VA benefits to fund the affiliate flight training without the participating in the actual degree path or do at least the minimal course work to qualify for the class. The VA benefits are capped around $10K per year for flight school (outside of a 4 year accredited degree program), and this class is a way to get $30K of flight training. From that perspective, especially considering the followup protest, it does seem reasonable under those conditions to remove the student from enrollment.

  5. Since the article mentions University of Phoenix as the leading provider of online education, but does not offer anything in the way of a comparison, I will provide the links here to the complaint statistics:

    https://www.va.gov/education/gi-bill-comparison-tool/institution/31926246
    https://www.va.gov/education/gi-bill-comparison-tool/institution/21907103

    Liberty has 13,760 GI Bill students and 14 complaints (in the last 2 years) with the only category type with more than 2 complaints is the ‘other’ category with 9 complaints.
    UOP has 10,405 GI Bill students and 76 complaints (in the last 2 years) with 8 category types having double digits.

    It is really hard to make an assessment based on complaint statistics on a website designed to easily submit complaints, however if there are some issues it is likely to be seen in a spike in some specific category which could possibly indicate a true iceberg hiding in the water. Based on the highlights of the actual complaints which don’t seem to reveal any real issues, and considering Liberty’s statement that the VA has not informed them of any negative findings, then you should be angry with the VA. If you presuppose the Liberty is getting away with awful behavior for GI Bill students, then your faith must connect to the VA for not acting on the complaints, or hiding the truly awful complaints, or that simply the complaints are not being reported to the VA.

  6. One last one. Regarding the complaint about falling short of SAP standards but still having a GPA above the threshold on the financial aid website.
    https://www.liberty.edu/student-financial-services/eligibility-and-enrollment/

    Right at the top of the section for SAP it says this:
    “Financial Aid SAP is the process used by the federal government to ensure students are successfully completing their academic program at a good pace. This policy includes FOUR [emphasis mine] standards that every student must meet in order to continue to receive federal aid.”

    And then right below that it gives a link the appeal policy and a link to submit an appeal. I don’t really understand how a student could read that page and not understand that there is more to the SAP standard than GPA and also apparently not file an appeal.

    Honestly I did not know that there was a Federal Standard Academic Progress (SAP) standard that applied to Federal aid. But it didn’t really take long to find some information about it before writing about it. I’m not trained as an investigative journalist nor do I play one on TV, because I prefer to consume it rather than produce it. But I am taking pen to paper to defend it because it is important and I think that any article should have at least a cursory investigative approach prior to being written, much less published. Far be it for anyone proclaiming that someone is violating a veteran’s right to receive educational assistance to discover it is a privilege instead based on a Federal standard. And who gives up on a degree a few credits short because of a $2900 bill?

    1. Michael,

      Thanks for your comments. I don’t have any love for Liberty, but I am veteran and acquainted with wrestling with multiple universities about my bennies (and of course, Uncle Sam).

      This article felt a little too self righteous, and as you pointed out, there were a lot of data points that seemed to go unexplored and didn’t hold up to initial scrutiny.

  7. The most detailed investigation into Liberty (so far…. yet…to my knowledge) aside from ProPublica is found on the “Gangster Capitalism” podcast.
    As a veteran and a former Liberty student, I have zero, nothing, nada positive things to say about the university, “the Liberty way”, the ethics, values or anything associated with it.

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