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Milton Greenberg: The New GI Bill Is No Match for the Original

[Milton Greenberg is professor emeritus of government at American University, where he has served as provost and interim president. He is the author of The GI Bill: The Law That Changed America (Lickle Publishing, 1997), a companion book to a PBS production.]

In June, Congress enacted the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act, commonly called the GI Bill of Rights for the 21st Century. Supporters claim that it does for current veterans what was done for those who served in World War II.

The new act is a significant piece of legislation. The expansion of educational benefits to veterans should be applauded. But any attempt to equate the economic and social forces that gave rise to the first GI bill and its unforeseen consequences with today's circumstances will lead to false expectations about the impact of the new version.

The original GI Bill of Rights, the brilliant popular title by which the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 became known, joined the heroic image of GI Joe of World War II with the iconic Bill of Rights. The idea of a tie between military service and educational opportunity was established. Although the benefits available were less generous for veterans of the wars in Korea and Vietnam, the rights continued even as America moved to a volunteer army in 1973. A few years later, the Veterans' Educational Assistance Program of 1976 was enacted. In 1984 a former Mississippi congressman, Gillespie V. (Sonny) Montgomery, revamped the GI Bill, which was designated as permanent and renamed the Montgomery GI Bill in 1987.

In recent years, however, the Montgomery law has failed to provide adequate resources for veterans caught in the upward spiral of tuition and other costs of higher education. With the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, and the long and deadly consequences of the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, pressure to remedy deficiencies in the educational benefits available to veterans serving under wartime conditions has grown. In addition, the decline of enlistments as a result of resistance to the Iraq war has resulted in compromises in educational and behavioral qualifications for recruitment.

The new legislation for veterans attempts to deal with those issues. It has been enacted in a very different context than that of its World War II counterpart.

The GI Bill of 1944 was neither a recruitment device nor a result of unbridled generosity on the part of a grateful nation. On the contrary, it was a political response to legitimate fears about the sudden return to civilian life of nearly 16 million veterans, most of whom had been drafted. Before the four years of wartime engagement, America had gone through 12 years of severe depression. Few in the age group of typical conscripted veterans had ever had durable employment opportunities. Only 23 percent of military personnel in World War II had high-school diplomas, and just 3 percent had college degrees. After the fighting ended, in August 1945, the nation faced a massive demobilization of military personnel and a change from a wartime economy to one responsive to neglected civilian needs....

Educational benefits to veterans since World War II have not been designed to avoid a social crisis. Rather, "benefits for service" programs are common and touted by most political candidates: waivers of financial-aid obligations for teaching in underserved areas, for example, and scholarship funds for performance of voluntary or low-paying public-service activities.

For today's military, educational benefits serve as ways to build and retain a volunteer force. As the prolonged war in Iraq has begun to negatively affect recruitment, more-generous educational benefits have been seen as an incentive to enlistments in the clearly overburdened military forces. A contrary view has been that generous educational opportunities will hurt retention. That issue has been resolved by making it possible for long-serving personnel to transfer their benefits to family members. Full benefits generally require 36 months of service, with family eligibility available for those who serve six years (spouses) or 10 years (children). The family benefit under the 1944 law was limited to the children of those who had died in service or were severely disabled....

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Ed