Narrow the college gap for vets

They deserve more generous college benefits – despite worries about retention.

Veterans back from Iraq and Afghanistan mounted a political assault on Congress this week. They want more benefits for college education proposed in a modern "GI Bill" because payouts don't cover costs. World War II vets got a free ticket to earn a sheepskin. Shouldn't today's?

It's not an easy question to answer. Two veterans themselves – Sen. Jim Webb, a Democrat, and Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate – can't agree. The issue is coming to a head as pre-election pressure builds to include more education benefits in a spending bill to fund the wars.

Both men acknowledge that today's benefits fall short of the steeply rising price of college, covering only about 75 percent of the average cost of four years at a public university. The gap is a source of bitterness among vets.

But the senators clash over the size and timing of more benefits. Mr. McCain and the Pentagon worry that increasing the payout too much, too quickly will cause a stampede out of the service at a time when it is stretched thin.

Mr. Webb says that's nonsense. His bipartisan bill, which has heavy Democratic support, would essentially restore the post-World War II-era benefits, covering the cost of the most expensive public school in a vet's state and paying a stipend for living expenses pegged to local costs. Veterans who had served three years after 9/11 would be eligible – about 1.6 million people so far. McCain's proposal would increase benefits for active-duty troops somewhat now, but require staying in the military 12 years to get the largest increase.

This is not World War II, the administration and McCain correctly point out. The GI Bill of that era was meant to close out a war and help nearly 8 million conscripts reenter civilian life. Today the US is fighting ongoing wars with a volunteer and better paid military.

Yet the moral argument can't be overlooked. Circumstances differ, but today's vets, too, served with the knowledge that their lives could be on the line. The war on terrorism has lasted longer and involved multiple deployments.

The Webb camp, supported by a majority in the House and Senate, points out that retention of soldiers after their term is up is running historically well. Bonuses keep folks in, but so do paid educational services for active-duty soldiers – on ships, online, and on base. They're heavily used because they're tied to promotions, and even produce degrees.

Senator Webb argues that his colleague is also overlooking the recruitment potential of full coverage of college costs. The promise of college is a top draw, and "high quality" recruits are more likely to complete their service. Increasingly, the military has had to waive restrictions on recruits with no diplomas and with criminal records.

The retention concern is legitimate, but it's also theoretical. So far, there's no evidence backing up this fear. While a study shows more college benefits would add recruits, it's based on data before 9/11.

A Webb cosponsor – Virginia Republican Sen. John Warner, who is no military softy – admits a risk of more exits, but wants to give Webb's bill "a try." Indeed, a bill with a time limit might be the best compromise here, allowing Congress the chance to adjust if needed.

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