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For-profit colleges have been remarkably successful pitching their academic programs to veterans in the post-9/11 era.

During the academic year that ended in 2013, they claimed $1.7 billion in GI Bill tuition and fee payments, more than a fourfold increase from just four years earlier, according to a Democratic staff report released in July by the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Along with this gusher of veterans education money has come plenty of controversy.

The Senate staff report notes concerns about aggressive recruiting tactics, misleading marketing and higher overall student dropout rates. The report also found that seven of the eight top-grossing for-profit universities were under investigation for possible violations of state and federal law.

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“Taxpayers are paying twice as much on average to send a veteran to a for-profit college for a year compared to the cost of a public university college,” the report said in an executive summary.

For-profits’ advocates say they have an important role to play in educating veterans, and have had considerable success.

Gary Heafey, an Air Force veteran in Spokane diagnosed with PTSD and depression, praises the education he is receiving at Carrington College, a for-profit he enrolled in after falling behind in his studies and withdrawing from a public school, Eastern Washington University.

At Carrington, Heafey is enrolled in a nine-month program that leads to a certificate in medical technology. Four months into his course work, he is happy with the school, which he says offers lots of hands-on training and a “family” atmosphere.

“Everything has just clicked,” Heafey said. “They pretty much walked me through all the paperwork. And instead of waiting weeks to get things done, it gets done in days.”

During the four academic years that ended in summer 2013, Washington for-profits claimed 32 percent of the post-9/11 benefits paid out by the federal Department of Veterans Affairs.

The top-grossing for-profit school — The Art Institute of Seattle — pulled in nearly $18.5 million during that period, a sum topped only by the University of Washington, according to an analysis of Department of Veterans Affairs data by The Seattle Times.

The Art Institute of Seattle currently has some 236 veterans enrolled in courses, accounting for more than 17 percent of its total student population, according to a statement from the institute. The culinary program is most popular among veterans, followed by photography and by media arts and animation, according to the statement.

The Seattle Art Institute is part of Education Management Corp., a major for-profit that has been battling misconduct charges in court.

A federal lawsuit alleges that recruiter payments were illegally based on the numbers of students they enrolled. Those charges, in court filings, have been denied by the corporation.

Some state attorneys general also are looking into recruitment, financial aid and student outcomes for Education Management Corp., according to the U.S. Senate staff report.

In Washington, the state campuses of the for-profit Everest College collected more than $9 million in VA education money in the four-year period ending in 2013.

It’s parent company, Corinthian Colleges, had financial problems. Under an agreement reached with the federal Education Department, it has agreed to try to sell most of its schools. Corinthian also has disclosed it’s under investigation by attorneys general in more than a dozen states, including Washington.

Alison Dempsey-Hall, a spokeswoman for state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, said the AG’s office recently hired an attorney to specialize in veterans’ consumer-protection cases.

For-profit advocates say that recruiting success among veterans results from meeting the needs of these students.

“We provide them with career-focused programs, important support services and the flexibility they need to complete their education,” said Michel Dakduk, of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, in a July statement responding to the Senate staff report.

Carrington has some 25 veterans and dependents among its more than 400 students. The college provides training in six health-care fields, and for most of them it offers certificates within nine months and includes internships and help with landing employment.

More than 70 percent of students have been placed in jobs during the last two years, according to Lisa Heide, Carrington’s director of enrollment services.

Heafey, the Air Force veteran, says that he hopes after earning his medical-technology certificate to go on to get a nursing degree.

He says he has had plenty of tough times since leaving the military in 2013 and filed for bankruptcy. Now, he says he’s in a better place.

“Everyone has problems. but once you start working on a goal, something to benefit yourself, it’s almost therapeutic,” Heafey said. “Going back to school has been a saving grace.”

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com