Given the growing gap between G.I. Bill benefits and rising college tuitions, and the growing sentiment that the troops need to come home sooner rather than later, it’s not surprising that Congress is considering action to welcome veterans back with better educational benefits.
"When we are talking about truly honoring service and truly taking care of the people who have served in an affirmative way, I can't think of a better thing to do than to allow them to reach the level of their talent with the type of educational assistance that will allow them to go to any school that they can get into,” Sen. Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat, said during a Senate Committee on Veteran Affairs hearing last week . “We're not seeing that today."
Under the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2007 , sponsored by Webb and described by the senator as “a mirror of the World War II G.I. Bill,” members of the military who have spent at least two years on active duty -- including those who have served in the Reserve and National Guard -- would be eligible for varying levels of educational benefits for up to 36 months based on time served (under the proposed act, at least some of a veteran's active duty service would have to have fallen after September 11, 2001, to be eligible for the enhanced benefits).
The bill would enable  eligible veterans to receive payments covering tuition -- up to the cost of in-state tuition at the most expensive public college in a veteran's home state -- room and board, fees, educational costs and a $1,000 monthly stipend. Currently, under the Montgomery GI Bill  – described by Webb at last week’s hearing as “a peacetime G.I. bill" – the monthly cap on educational benefits for active duty personnel completing an enlistment of three years or more is $1,075, with the benefits maxing out at $38,700 after 36 months, or four academic years.
Kimberly Hunter, a spokeswoman for Webb, said via e-mail that she is hopeful the committee will mark up the proposed measure within the next month. The bill has already received endorsements from a number of veterans' organizations for restoring G.I. benefits to something akin to their post-World War II form.
Yet the legislation has already run up against resistance from the Department of Veterans Affairs. In testimony last week , Daniel L. Cooper, under secretary for benefits, criticized the bill for its complexity and its cost. Although Hunter said the senator’s office is currently getting the legislation priced by the Congressional Budget Office and expects to have a cost estimate within the next month, the veterans affairs department already has its own estimate, and it is not insignificant: The department estimates a $5.4 billion cost during the 2008 fiscal year and a $32.2 billion expenditure for 2008 through 2012. In his written testimony, Cooper also suggested that the bill, if passed, “may lead to lower reenlistments.”
While Congress debates whether or not to spend the big bucks on educational benefits, many individual campuses have stepped up  in recent months to enhance the benefits they deliver to veterans on their own. Among the most recent efforts, Western Michigan University’s Board of Trustees approved the new Returning Veterans Tuition Assistance Program  at its April 27 meeting. The program will offer a free first semester for veterans so they can get started on their educations as they wait for their veteran affairs' benefits to take effect. After their free first semester, eligible veterans at Western Michigan can now expect to pay in-state tuition rates, regardless of their state of residence.
“It just struck me that a lot of these soldiers coming home" are facing problems getting their paperwork processed that could sidetrack their educations, said Dan Pero, chair of Western Michigan's Board of Trustees. Pero wondered, he said, "what can we do at Western for those coming home to make their transition better and also to provide a shot in the arm for our own enrollment?”
"This is a win-win situation," Pero said. “This will give a returning soldier an opportunity to enroll while they’re sorting through this nightmare of paperwork.”