Since it was first enacted, the GI Bill of Rights has been wildly successful.
It is thought to have helped stave off a second Great Depression as American soldiers returned home from WWII, most without jobs and unclear plans for the future. The GI Bill granted 7.8 million of these veterans a college education; it is largely credited with the establishment of an American middle class, which lifted millions out of poverty and continues to power our economy over 60 years later.
Part of the New Deal legacy, the GI Bill has been a great investment in the American people. For every dollar spent on the program for WWII vets, the government estimates that seven dollars were generated. Leaders throughout government and in business have been educated under the GI Bill. Five current U.S. Senators were able to obtain a college degree via this program.
In the sixty plus years since its inception, this quintessential piece of veteran’s legislation has undergone numerous changes, reflecting both the demographics of peace and that of conflict. At different stages, Congress has had to tweak benefits to reflect both inflation and the influx of, or decrease in, the number of veterans.
With the Iraq War now entering its sixth year and 130,000 troops still on the ground, (including another 30,000 fighting in Afghanistan), the time for modernizing the GI Bill has come. We are fortunate this go-round to have a true citizen-solider leading the cause, Virginia’s own Senator Jim Webb. Veterans could not have a better advocate on their side as the process of remaking the GI Bill to reflect the challenges faced in the 21st century begins.
The current “Montgomery GI Bill” was designed primarily for peacetime – not wartime service. It requires service members to pay $100 a month during their first year of enlistment, for which they will receive up to $1,075 a month toward an education, capping out at $38,700. If you’ve paid college tuition recently, you know full well that $38,000 isn’t enough to cover a four year degree at a public university, let alone one at most private institutions.
In light of these growing costs and a veterans education benefit that lags with the times, Senator Webb has proposed a revamped GI Bill that, for the cost of keeping our troops in Iraq for just half a week, would give our soldiers a benefit in keeping with today’s college costs. While the bill makes many improvements to the current GI law, the single most important provision is that it makes every veteran (including reservists and the National Guard) who served after 9/11 eligible to receive education benefits equal to the cost of attending the most expensive public institution in their state of residence, applicable to their school of choice.
For vets who may decide a private college or university best meets their educational needs and career goals, Sen. Webb’s bill also directs the government to match, dollar for dollar, any voluntary additional contributions by an institution whose tuition is more expensive than that of the most expensive public university in the state. And unlike current law, Senator Webb’s plan gives veterans 15 rather than ten years to use their education benefit.
As a cosponsor of the House companion version of Sen. Webb’s bill, I whole-heartedly support efforts to provide our troops not only armor and bullets while in battle, but also educational training and medical care when they return home. Between the horror stories at Walter Reed and the current GI Bill’s lackluster educational benefit, it’s clear a new way forward for a new generation of veterans must be charted.
Regardless of your position on the Iraq war — which I have strongly opposed from day one — we owe it to those willing to risk their lives in the service of their country. Sen. Webb’s 21st Century GI Bill is a key part of that new direction for our nation’s veterans, and I’m proud to support it.