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GI Bill may be updated to help veterans meet rising college costs

Current funding levels don't always cover college tuition.

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"We keep saying this is the next 'greatest generation'... and we should give them the same educational opportunities that the people coming back from World War II had," Senator Webb says.

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Paul Rieckoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, has been making the case – in D.C. and in the media – that a new, comprehensive GI Bill "is arguably the best return on investment we can get from a government program." It would help mitigate other issues, he says, because when veterans have to sleep on Mom's couch or work an extra job to pay for college, many "get behind on their loans and have to drop out of school.... That's when we start to see the mental health [and family] problems kick in."

A patchwork of state provisions covers some gaps in the meantime. Twenty-five states offer a variety of education benefits to veterans or to members of the National Guard, according to Military.com.

World War II veteran Jerome Kohlberg recently launched the Fund for Veterans' Education to give private scholarships – but he is also challenging the US government to make a bigger investment in today's returning soldiers.

The original GI Bill – the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 – covered full tuition (at public or private schools), fees, books, and a living stipend. By 1952, the government had spent $7 billion on education for 2.2 million veterans. The return on that investment was at least $5 for every $1 spent, according to a 1988 report for Congress's Joint Economic Committee – and that's only counting the 40 percent of veterans who would not have attended college otherwise.

Webb's bill has 32 cosponsors and a companion bill in the House. Dozens of other proposals have also cropped up in Congress to tweak educational benefits, and Webb is working to incorporate some of those ideas, such as equalizing the benefit for National Guard and Reserve members who serve as much time in war zones as their full-time counterparts.

Webb estimates his bill would cost an additional $2 billion a year. But the Department of Veterans Affairs opposes it, estimating a significantly higher cost and an administrative burden of calculating individual benefit amounts. Currently it sends out an automated monthly check based on a veteran's status as a full- or part-time student.

Money isn't the only barrier. One problem is inconsistency in schools' willingness to transfer credits from other schools or military experience, says John Mikelson of Student Veterans of America and a student at the University of Iowa. He's heard cases of two people with the same level of training who were granted different credits at the same school. New SVA chapters are springing up on campuses every week to support administrators and veterans as they transition from soldiering to school.

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