On Veterans Day, GI Bill boosts vets and the military

After a rough first year, the new GI Bill that pays for a college education generally pleases veterans and military recruiters. But the program needs to be closely monitored for workability and recruiting.

This Veterans Day, the first field reports are in for the most generous educational benefits for recent American vets since World War II – the “new” GI Bill.

They show that generally, veterans are happy with the package and so are military recruiters. That’s an important plus for those who have served their country in the longest sustained combat period in American military history. It’s also a boost to the voluntary aspect of the armed forces.

But this $78 billion program has been tough to deploy. It needs continued tracking and oversight during its 10-year life span – and adjusting. The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) must keep focusing on better delivery of the benefits. And the Pentagon must continue to closely monitor the effects of the so-called post-9/11 GI Bill on the retention of soldiers and officers who might be tempted by the benefits to leave the service.

The benefits, which took effect in August 2009, vastly improve educational opportunities for American veterans who have served at least 30 days after Sept. 11, 2001.

It fully covers tuition at state-run schools of higher education, and provides stipends for books and living expenses based on the military’s housing allowance. Matching federal dollars are available for attending private colleges that also give veterans financial aid.

This week, an independent study by the American Council on Education shows that participants in the program, which is run by the VA, are largely pleased with the benefits. So pleased, that last year, more than 300,000 people took advantage of the program to enroll in higher education.

But veterans also lobbed criticism at the program. They told the survey that checks and payments arrived late. Education credits from the military didn’t consistently transfer to colleges. Almost 40 percent of the respondents didn’t understand their benefits and options and had no way of tracking payments.

In an “ouch” to colleges, vets also complained that some campuses aren’t prepared for their arrival and their special needs – whether those be physical and emotional support services or college orientations that must reach beyond an audience of freshly graduated high school students.

Fortunately, both the VA and colleges are getting the message. Last fall, it took the VA 48 days to process an enrollment; this year, it’s 18 days. The VA is starting up a new IT system so that it can automate payments (it now calculates them by hand). By next fall, students will be able to track their benefits online.

On campuses, meanwhile, the private Student Veterans of America organization is educating administrators to the needs of student vets. Last year at this time, the organization had about 200 chapters; this year, it’s up to 340 and growing weekly.

The 1944 GI Bill was meant to integrate roughly 15 million soldiers into civilian life after World War II. The pool eligible for the new GI Bill is much smaller, roughly 2 million people who have served since 9/11.

The new benefits still have integration value for individuals. And they benefit society by further educating Americans. But the post-9/11 GI Bill was also designed to support the all-volunteer military of the post-Vietnam era by providing a strong incentive to sign up – and stay in.

Members of the military who have served at least six years in active duty, and agree to serve an additional four, can transfer their education benefits to a spouse. Serve 10 years, and the benefits can go to children.

“The GI Bill has made a big difference” in Army recruiting, said Maj. Gen. Donald Campbell last month. The Army, indeed all of the armed forces, met or exceeded recruiting goals for fiscal year 2010, which ended Sept. 30. This contrasts with the more difficult years of 2006 and 2007.

The weak economy played a role, the Pentagon says, but so, too, did the new education benefit.

For a country now heavily dependent on a highly trained and specialized volunteer military, the new GI Bill looks to be a powerful motivator. But the Pentagon must track the leverage of these benefits, as a recruitment and retention tool.

As the nation moves into an era of budget cuts, this program will have to prove its worth – and workability – through performance.

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