In Iraq and Afghanistan they've battled insurgents and built schools. But when it comes to enrolling in school themselves, many of today's veterans are facing an unexpected fight – the fight to stay afloat amid mounting college costs.
It's time for a revamped GI Bill, say veterans' organizations and scores of US legislators. Like their World War II counterparts, the men and women making sacrifices in the "war on terror" should be rewarded with benefits that cover the full cost of education, they say. As a bonus to society, they tout the prospect of long-term economic gains and a steadier stream of good recruits.
It's not clear yet whether those arguments will pull more dollars out of a tightly cinched federal purse. But the issue resonates as part of a wider conversation in American society about the need to increase access to higher education. Because low-income recruits make up much of today's military, a more robust GI Bill "would do a measurable amount ... to expand equality of opportunity in a period of American history when equality of opportunity is contracting," says Theda Skocpol, a government and sociology professor at Harvard. "It's a lot more important than ... whether you're going to force wealthy universities to [spend] a higher proportion of their endowments," she says, because it affects average people.
A coalition of veterans' groups called for dramatically higher education benefits this week in publicizing their annual budget and policy recommendations. They noted that in 2005-06, the average cost of a four-year college (tuition, fees, and room and board) topped $17,000 a year. Yet full-time GI benefits covered barely more than half those expenses. (Injured veterans can qualify for full expenses through a different set of benefits.)
On Capitol Hill, support is building for new World War II-style benefits – either in this year's budget or through legislation such as that proposed by Sen. James Webb (D) of Virginia and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska, both Vietnam veterans. Known as the Post 9-11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act, it would apply to those who have served two years of active duty, with part of that service since Sept. 11, 2001. Full benefits would cover the equivalent of a four-year education at the highest-priced public institution in a given state. The law would also provide a monthly living stipend of up to $1,000 and give veterans 15 years, instead of 10, to use their benefits.
"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.
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."
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.