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Best You Can Be Without a Degree

February 14, 2008

Fifty years from now, today’s soldiers won’t be telling their grandkids that their college bills were taken care of, said Patrick Campbell, legislative director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).

Nor, he argued, will they tell them about the $20,000, $30,000, even $40,000 enlistment bonus checks they cashed. “It’s not a good investment,” Campbell said of the military's spending strategy. Nor does it promote wise investments on the part of those receiving. “What are you going to do" with the money, he asked. "You’re going to buy a flat-screen TV.”

A coalition of veterans’ groups, including IAVA and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, joined Sens. Jim Webb (D-Va.), Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) on Capitol Hill Wednesday to advocate for a “GI Bill for the 21st Century.” Citing the lagging purchasing power of veterans' educational benefits relative to increasing college costs – the American Association of State Colleges and Universities estimates that the $9,909 annual benefit for former active duty service members covers only about three-quarters of the average total cost of attendance at public four-year universities ($13,145) -- veterans’ groups called for a dramatic re-envisioning of the current Montgomery GI Bill, passed in peacetime.

“I just think this is a no-brainer for the United States” -- to reward service "commensurate to the service that was given," said Senator Webb. In Senate Bill 22, introduced his first day in office a little more than one year ago, Senator Webb calls for benefits akin to those bestowed on World War II fighters. If passed, the legislation would enable eligible veterans who have served on active duty since September 11 to receive payments covering tuition -- up to the cost of in-state tuition at the most expensive public college in a veteran’s state -- room, board, fees, and educational costs, plus a $1,000 monthly stipend.

The Bush administration, however, has raised some grave concerns about Webb’s bill, and not only because of its $2 billion estimated annual price tag. Beyond the cost factor, Pentagon leaders have worried that boosting the benefit to that extent could discourage servicemen and women from reenlisting.

“[T]he current [Montgomery GI Bill] program for active duty is basically sound and serves its purpose in support of the all-volunteer force. The department finds no need for the kind of sweeping (and expensive) changes offered,” Tom Bush, the principal director of manpower and personnel, and Curt Gilroy, director of accession policy, both of the Department of Defense, said in their written testimony to Congress on Webb’s bill last summer.

“As stated previously, the average monthly cost of a public four-year institution this past school year was about $1,450 -- therefore we could expect the average recipient to receive a monthly benefit of about $2,400. In line with my earlier discussion about benefit levels, we are concerned that a benefit of this level would have long-term negative impact on force management,” Bush and Gilroy continued. They also noted that the bill doesn’t allow for “kickers,” or extra educational bonuses that the military currently uses to target high-need areas.

A Department of Defense spokesman said Tuesday that the department’s position on dramatically boosting educational benefits has stayed the same. “The department is not against increasing education benefits,” said Lt. Col. Jonathan Withington. “It’s about how to go about doing it. And the research shows that you have to be very careful about the tipping point of when a recruiting incentive may become a retention disincentive.”

Colonel Withington said that department officials are also at work in figuring out how to implement President Bush’s new proposal to boost education benefits in a different way.

As mentioned in last month's State of the Union address -- but not, as the Washington Post pointed out Saturday, funded in any way in his proposed budget for the 2009 fiscal year -- President Bush has proposed expanding the transferability of unused education benefits to children and spouses.

That's a benefit that has been explicitly tied to reenlistment.

Talking About Transferability

Currently, all of the services have very limited authority to allow soldiers to transfer their educational benefits. Only the Army allows it. “It’s reserved for careerists,” said Colonel Withington. To be able to transfer the GI benefit, a soldier must have at least six years in service. He or she would have to commit to another four years and would have to reenlist in a designated critical skills area. Only half the benefit -- 18 of the allowable 36 months -- can now be transferred.

Colonel Withington said it’s unclear what any expansion of transferability of benefits would look like -- or what it would cost to make the benefits available for transfer if a service member so chooses. “Ninety-seven percent of those eligible enroll in the GI Bill. About 70 percent actually use the benefit [although very few use all of it], so we would assume that the 70 percent figure would increase,” he said.

While plans are “still lacking in granularity at this point,” the Department of Defense plans to advance a bill to Congress with the goal of having a program in place by October, he said. “The president wants this program. He said it the other night. He wants to recognize the sacrifices of the families and they do sacrifice greatly.”

Identical bills recently introduced in the House and Senate -- two of many pending that would enhance veterans' education benefits one way or another -- follow President Bush's lead and would, if passed, expand the ability to transfer education benefits to immediate family members. Many working on behalf of expanding the benefits, however, said that while they don’t have anything against transferability, per se, it isn’t their priority.

Getting a meaningful benefit money-wise given the rising cost of college is. Groups like AASCU say their biggest priority is to get the rate "in line with the average cost of attendance at a public four-year institution.”

“The transferability issue really isn’t on our radar,” said David Guzman, legislative director for the National Association of Veterans' Program Administrators (NAVPA), which represents professionals working with veterans on the campus level. “We’re looking at other enhancements for the GI Bill. We’re looking at enhancing programs for the Guard and Reserve,” he said. Ticking off the major priorities of the organization, he referenced equity for National Guard and Reserve service members fighting alongside those on active duty, increased funding for colleges running Veterans Affairs programs, and an elimination of the expiration date on educational benefits (generally 10 years after ending active duty service).

“Sometimes I wonder what Congress is really doing," Guzman said. He described the new focus on transferability as detracting attention from what matters most.

"Sometimes it seems like they’re doing token things to get the votes. They’re not doing meaningful things to actually pay back the veteran for the service they give to the country.”

But while expanding transferability might do little to aid many who leave the military after a few years with plans for college and a civilian career -- many who NAVPA's members would come into contact with on campuses -- it would, supporters say, be a great benefit for careerists.

And, given that service members opt into the GI Bill with 12 $100 non-refundable payments their first year of service, such a change would mean that those who decide to pursue long-term military careers in lieu of college wouldn’t have to miss out on the benefits they paid into.

“We would like to see the transfer program be associated with a career reenlistment decision,” said Robert Norton, a retired colonel and deputy director for government relations for the Military Officers Association of America. By helping a spouse prepare for a new career or easing a kid's college bill, transferability of benefits that would otherwise go unused can help a family move toward its long-term goals while a service member stays in the force. “It really is an incentive for retention.”

“The more benefits for spouses the better,” added Sue Hoppin, deputy director for spouse outreach for the Officers’ Association.

In that spirit and on that note, in November, the U.S. Departments of Defense and Labor announced a pilot initiative, the "Military Spouse Career Advancement Accounts." Men and women married to service members at certain ranks in eight states are eligible for up to $3,000 in grants, renewable for one year, to obtain education or licensure in one of five high-growth industries. In her remarks announcing the program, Elaine L. Chao, the secretary of labor, said that about 77 percent of military spouses want or need to work, but that frequent moves characteristic of the military lifestyle can inhibit spouses' progress toward long-term careers.

In all, the program received more than $35 million in funds. Jiri Crowder, flight chief for the Airman and Family Readiness Center at Eglin Air Force Base, in Florida, said that they have awarded 167 grants, averaging about $2,000 apiece, at Elgin and nearby Hurlburt Field Air Force Base to date.

“It is for the spouses to find careers, so that they support the retention and the readiness of the military,” said Crowder.

'A Benefit That Works'

When asked about the various proposals to enhance transferability of GI Bill benefits, Webb said Wednesday that while that’s not part of his bill currently, he’d be willing to entertain a debate on the matter. There are two arguments on the issue, he said. “One is it will help spouses if a veteran decides not to use his benefit. The other is you never know when a veteran decides to use his benefit.”

Beyond transferability, senators and veterans advocates at Wednesday's press event stressed a more straightforward challenge -- which one speaker said he felt the need to articulate in the clearest terms possible.

“The benefit that we have is completely inadequate,” said Luke Stalcup, of the new national group, Student Veterans of America, and a student in the class of 2008 at Columbia University. “We don’t have a benefit that works. We need one that does.”

Webb chimed in that the average annual GI benefit received in fiscal year 2007 -- about $6,000 -- would cover only 13 percent of Stalcup’s total costs at Columbia. Then when asked about the Pentagon’s reservations about his bill, the senator called the concerns “unfounded.”

“I think this will expand recruitment,” he said, widening the pool beyond the same small group that the military has fixed its sights upon.

Senator Hagel, who pointed out that about 1 percent of the population sustains the volunteer force, added that the military needs to move away from its recent strategy of loosening requirements to meet recruitment targets -- waiving restrictions on recruits with criminal records, with drug convictions and without high school diplomas. Without more creative solutions for recruiting a high-quality pool of people, he said, “We’ll not be able to sustain not only the manpower requirements of this country but the quality we’ve attracted in the last 25 years.”

As for Webb’s bill, it now has 32 Senate co-sponsors, including Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (but not John McCain), and 93 House co-sponsors. At a hearing last week, the Senate Committee on Armed Services asked Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to, within the next month or so, provide a clear statement on the Department of Defense’s official position going forward.

“My opinion about the Webb bill -- I think it’s great it’s being proposed, but it has a snowball’s chance in hell because of the amount of money it’s going to cost,” said Giacomo Mordente III, the administrator of various veterans' programs at Southern Connecticut State University and immediate past president of the National Association of Veterans’ Program Administrators.

“The counterargument is the administration always has an unlimited budget to go to war. But when it comes time to help the people, the casualties of the war, they do whatever they can to limit liability."

“I think those who vote for appropriations for the war should vote for appropriations for the ongoing costs and consequences of the war,” said James Wright, the president of Dartmouth College and an advocate for veterans’ education. In a phone interview, he brought up yet another variable much more in the U.S. Department of Education domain's than in the Pentagon's.

“Let’s face it. This has become part of a broader conversation in Washington about higher education and a sense that some schools have a lot of money and they charge too much for tuition. And I think there is a concern about the government contributing to that by having another entitlement program that would provide more money to schools that some people think don’t need it.”

He’d happily debate that issue, Wright said, but would hate to see the GI Bill become entangled in this “broader political battle or culture war about American higher education.”

 

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