I attended the American Council on Education’s (ACE) presidential summit, Serving Those Who Serve: Higher Education and America’s Veterans, at Georgetown University on June 5 and 6. The event was organized some months ago and seemed even timelier given the status of the Senate and House bills intended to enhance the Montgomery G.I. Bill. Nearly 200 people representing higher education administration, faculty, students and veterans attended the conference.
Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE), the lead co-sponsor of Sen. Jim Webb’s (D-VA) Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act (S. 22), was the lead speaker. He talked about how the proposed legislation would modernize educational benefits for members of our Armed Forces who have served since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and provide them with a benefit much closer to the educational benefit provided after World War II.
The original Montgomery G.I. Bill was novel in that it was championed by a veteran’s organization, the American Legion, with the help of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Passed in 1944, the bill provided benefits to all veterans equally, regardless of rank or other distinguishing feature. At the signing of the bill in June 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt stated, “’It gives servicemen and women the opportunity of resuming their education or technical training after discharge, or of taking a refresher or retainer course, not only without tuition charge…, but with the right to receive a monthly living allowance while pursuing their studies.’” The bill was a tremendous success. The State Department’s website notes that in 1940, only 160,000 people earned college degrees in the United States; in 1950, after the G.I. Bill had been in effect for less than a decade, United States colleges and universities touted a graduating class of 500,000.
The 1944 bill was tremendously more helpful to returning veterans than the benefits provided to veterans at the end of World War I; according to the Veterans Administration’s website, soldiers returning from World War I were given nothing more than a train ticket home and $60. While perhaps helpful in the short term, this did little for them in the long run. The 1944 bill helped not only the veterans who directly received its benefits but also America as a whole. Prior to the G.I. Bill, the world of academia was dominated by the elite; after, schools were inundated with returning veterans anxious to further their educations. The economic stimulus provided by the bill was tremendous. TIME magazine stated in a recent article that “…it effectively created the American middle class.”
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, IAVA, has developed a worthwhile website (www.gibill2008.org) that details the provisions of the current G.I. Bill in comparison to the proposed changes. The organization estimates that the educational allowances of the current G.I. Bill cover only 60-70% of the average cost of four years at a public university and less than two years at a private school. Under the current provisions of the bill, troops can receive approximately $39,600 toward their education after contributing a nonrefundable contribution from their first military paychecks. The proposed changes would provide benefits to any military service member who spends only 1 day of active duty in the post-9/11 military. Further, the current G.I. Bill is linked to the Consumer Price Index while the new bill with the proposed changes in place would be linked to the cost of attending college, allowing veterans greater freedom in selecting which school they attend. The IAVA estimates that with the proposed changes, the value of the educational benefits provided to service men and women would double in 2009.
At the conference, participants were given time to discuss issues with current college students who are veterans. I was able to have a dialogue about transfer of credit with a staff member of ACE and a student veteran attending an Ivy League school. In our institution’s history, we have found it interesting that schools who state that they accept ACE credit don’t accept all ACE credit recommendations or they cap the amount of credit accepted. This veteran confirmed that UCLA had offered him 56 credit hours if he had attended there after discharge while his current institution offered 13 credit hours.
In an email to member presidents, ACE President Molly Corbett Broad stated, “while I think it is important that federal policy makers increase the education benefits available to veterans, I do believe that campuses must re-double efforts to ease the transition from soldier to student.” This fell in line with comments from other speakers who remarked that after World War II, vets comprised over 50% of the classroom and that today less than 2% of most schools’ student bodies will be vets.
The students discussed transition issues as well as affordability issues. While the new bill proposes paying state university in-state tuition, it also has a provision that would allow the federal government to pay for up to half of the excess tuition above the state rate if the institution agreed to provide matching funds. That provision is likely to apply to higher cost private institutions.
The new bill also has a provision to pay a housing allowance to students but excludes distance education students. I have an issue with that. Data from the Veterans Administration indicates that 60% of veterans obtain their benefits through distance education. They would have housing costs if enrolled full time at a distance education institution just as they would if they were a commuter student at a residential institution. The Federal Student Aid program does not have a similar provision and I urge readers to write their congressman or senator to ask for passage of the proposed bill but also to remove this prohibition against distance education.
The bill is likely to go before the House one day this week. Speakers gave it a high likelihood of passage since the White House had backed off of veto talk after it was revealed that the number of soldiers who will leave the service after passage of an enriched G.I. Bill is approximately 20% of the number of citizens who will sign up for the military if an enriched G.I. Bill is in place. I’ll provide an update after the final version is published.