With Congress and the White House in agreement on a supplemental war spending package that would dramatically boost GI Bill benefits, thoughts are turning to the potential impact of the changes on colleges and student veterans. Many in higher education are excited about the probable passage of Virginia Sen. Jim Webb’s “21st Century GI Bill" -- but so too are many curious about how billions in new benefit dollars could affect the calculus of veterans’ educational choices.
“This goes a long way toward making today’s GI Bill a kind of equalizer that the original GI Bill was,” said Suzanne Mettler, a professor of government at Cornell University and author of Soldiers to Citizens: The G.I. Bill and the Making of the Greatest Generation (Oxford Press, 2005 ). The pending legislation, she said, "could have a similar kind of democratizing potential.”
The compromise war spending bill -- which also includes $400 million in research funding (see related article ) -- increases the GI Bill benefit to cover up to the cost of in-state tuition at the most expensive public college in a veteran’s state, a monthly housing stipend based on a college’s location, and an extra $1,000 annually for books. It also includes the “Yellow Ribbon” program, in which the government would provide matching funding to private colleges that cover part of the difference in tuition over and above costs at public universities.
An earlier version of the legislation, which is now estimated to cost $62 billion over 10 years, passed the House and Senate earlier this year  under a Bush veto threat (the administration had raised questions, for instance, on whether increasing veterans' benefits would discourage service members from re-enlisting ). President Bush has since indicated  that he would not veto a compromise package hammered out on Wednesday -- which includes provisions on transferring educational benefits to spouses and children, a presidential priority  -- clearing the way for the bill's seemingly imminent passage. The House approved the compromise bill late Thursday, by an overwhelming margin of 416-12;  a Senate vote is expected next week.
Meanwhile, the current Montgomery GI Bill benefits are worth $1,101 monthly. Some say the benefits, at their current levels, are too low to offer veterans -- who disproportionately come from low socioeconomic backgrounds -- real choices about which colleges, if any, to attend.
“In the middle of the 20th century from the creation of the GI Bill up to the creation of Pell Grants, we were finding ways to expand access to higher education and more and more people from across the socioeconomic spectrum were going to college. Since the 1970s, we’ve been at a plateau of four-year degree attainment for people from below median income families,” said Cornell’s Mettler.
“I think that expanding the GI bill, making it more generous, can be one component of really expanding access to higher education for people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.”
Experts offered different opinions on whether the greatly enhanced educational benefits would mean that veterans would make different choices about college. Right now, many veterans are attending community college -- about 40 percent of GI Bill recipients are pursuing two-year degrees, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The for-profit University of Phoenix is the biggest destination institution for veterans, followed by American InterContinental University (also a for-profit). Other big receivers of veterans include American Public University, the University of Maryland, Central Texas College, Kaplan and Strayer Universities, and El Paso and Florida Community Colleges.
“I know there are some community colleges that have expressed concern that if the veteran is going to get tuition and fees covered regardless of where they’re going to go to school, those veterans are going to want to go to the big-name schools. In my experience, I’m not sure that’s necessarily true. I think convenience is still going to be paramount,” said Keith Wilson, director of the Education Service at the Department of Veterans Affairs. “If the local school can provide the education that these veterans want, they will still go to that local school. But it’s an unknown."
“All things being equal I think we’re not going to see major shifts in where veterans are going to school. But if I’m proved wrong, I’ll take that as what it is. It may happen," he continued.
“There are just so many variables. One of the major variables that a lot of folks aren’t totally accounting for right now is the fact that this legislation is probably going to include the ability to transfer GI Bill benefits to a dependent. If that’s the case, then we’re bringing in a group of individuals that we’re going to be paying benefits to that we really don’t have any experience with. That’s going to shift how the benefit is going to be used, but it won’t be the veterans using them," Wilson said.
“I have a feeling that University of Phoenix will always be the number one recipient of GI Bill benefits, in part because they make themselves so incredibly accessible to veterans throughout this country,” said Patrick Campbell, legislative director for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America . But, Campbell said of the expanded GI Bill under consideration, “This benefit will let people choose if University of Phoenix is right for them, or if they want to go to Harvard.”
“Right now we’ve set up an incentive that says we’re only going to give you a certain amount of money no matter where you go; therefore, economize appropriately. ‘Where can I get a degree and not have to work two jobs or live on mom’s couch?’ "
“The way that this [new] benefit is structured is to send people to school and make that their full-time job,” Campbell said. He pointed out, for instance, that while veterans who complete their education entirely online or attend college less than half-time would see about a 20 percent boost in educational benefits under the Webb bill, they wouldn’t get the housing stipend.
“What we would like to see is people enrolling in person in colleges,” explained Kimberly Hunter, a spokeswoman for Senator Webb’s office. “If you are going full time for four academic years to a university then we would give you a living stipend to supplement the money that you would not be making because you’d be going full time to school.”
It’s tempting to make parallels between the current GI Bill and the original post-World War II one, which had the transformative effect of leveling the playing field, opening the elite bastions of higher education to a much more diverse populace, and making Columbia University about as accessible as a community college. But some experts warned against pushing the comparison between now and then too far.
“I don’t see it as transformative,” Milton Greenberg, a professor emeritus of government and former interim president of American University, said of the new proposed GI Bill. Greenberg, who authored The GI Bill: The Law That Changed America (Lickle Publishing, 1997 ), emphasized that the social context for the original legislation was radically different from the current context, in terms of the number of potential students affected, the demographic characteristics of the veterans, and the higher education landscape. “It’s not transformative,” Greenberg said of Webb's bill, “but it definitely is going to be a boost because the more people that get college degrees, the better off we all are.”
“I think that nobody should look for the same dramatic impact that the World War II GI bill had because that really did open up higher education, which previously had been pretty much a prerogative of the middle class and indeed the intellectual elite of the country because a college degree was not required for many professions,” said James Wright, Dartmouth College’s president and an active advocate for veterans in higher education.
However, Wright said that enhancing educational benefits could be useful in helping veterans overcome the sticker shock associated with high tuition prices -- which discourage many from applying to elite universities, even if ample financial aid might be available.
“Those who are coming out of the military should be able to think about going to the best schools in the country," Wright said. "They should be thinking about going to the colleges that most meet their needs. We should still expect a fair number of them to go to local two-year colleges and those will be good places for them at least to reintroduce themselves to higher education.”
Yet, Wright continued, "the United States at its best is a country of dreams."
“I think what this does is expand a little bit more the opportunity for dreaming.”