Dissecting the New GI Bill

The war spending bill President Bush signed into law this week includes one of the most dramatic bumps in troop benefits to come along in decades: a new military funding measure that roughly doubles the money troops would be eligible to get for college once they've completed at least three years in the military. Under the bill, veterans can attend the most expensive public university in their home state for four years with tuition fully covered—or they can apply the amount to tuition at a private university. They will also get $1,000 a month for housing and living expenses and more money for books and tutoring. The Pentagon opposed the bill, fearing fewer GIs would re-enlist as a result, but Virginia Democratic Sen. Jim Webb, the bill's sponsor, believes it will actually lead to higher recruitment numbers. Webb modeled the legislation after Franklin Roosevelt's World War II GI bill, legislation that made academia accessible to a much larger swath of the population and changed American society almost overnight. For perspective on how the new bill affect troops and universities, NEWSWEEK's Dan Ephron spoke to Dartmouth College President James Wright, who helped draft the legislation. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Historians say Roosevelt's GI bill really shaped postwar America. How much impact can we expect from this bill?
Wright: I don't think anything could have the comprehensive impact that the World War II GI bill had. That really led to the democratization of American higher education in some pretty basic ways, and indeed you might say a democratization of American society and American opportunity. Before the Second World War, a college education was not a requirement for most positions, most career paths. … I think what the GI bill did at the end of World War II and what the current GI bill will do on a lesser scale is expand the opportunity to dream about doing something different.

How are soldiers different today?
I would say that the veterans of World War II and Vietnam were more representative of the demography of American society than are the young men and women who are in the military today in the all-volunteer Army. I think the current military is whiter than our society as a whole; it is less urban, it's more Southern and Western, and that does not represent the full population of the country. But these are exactly the population groups where people have not pursued higher education in the same numbers, the same proportions, and I think [the new bill] will cause people who may not have thought about going on to pursue their education to do that now.

You helped write this bill. What was your contribution?
I had been in touch with Sen. Webb, and went down and spent an afternoon with Sen. Webb and Sen. [John] Warner [R-Va.] and Sen. [Chuck] Hagel [R-Neb.]. One of the reasons some people at the time were resisting the new GI bill was the potential cost at private schools. And so we talked about that situation, and certainly it was my view and theirs that we did not want to close out the opportunity for veterans to go to private schools. … And so the language I was involved in had to do with the idea that the GI bill will provide support for the costs of the most expensive public university in the state where a student enrolls, and if the tuition rate is higher than that, [private] universities and colleges might elect to join with the government in sharing the cost for the incremental charge.

How many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans attend Dartmouth?
Last year, we enrolled three veterans who came in the fall of '07—three Marines, one of whom I first met down at Bethesda hospital, which I started visiting in '05. And there are six more who will be coming in next year.

Why were you visiting GIs in Bethesda?
It was following the battle of Falujah, which I found just such a powerful emotional experience—the casualties and the suffering there. I was talking to a Dartmouth friend who was a retired Marine officer about how I wish[ed] there was some way to reach out and encourage these veterans to pursue higher education, and he suggested I go visit them at the hospital. He was in touch with someone in the [Bethesda Naval Hospital] commandant's office, who authorized me to visit, which I did in the summer of '05. It was a very powerful experience for me, and I've been back 14 or 15 times to Bethesda, Walter Reed and Balboa hospital in San Diego. Basically I go and try to encourage these wounded veterans to pursue their education.

The Pentagon opposed this bill, and the reason they cited is the impact it might have on re-enlistment. In other words, if you raise the amount of money GIs get for college, more will actually leave the military to attend college. The argument sounds a little odd, but the problem of re-enlistment could be very real. What's the best way to address that?
I think they do worry, and legitimately so, about losing that trained [noncommissioned officer] corps after three or four years, and I think the Congressional Budget Office suggested there could be up to a 16 percent drop in re-enlistment [as a result of the new bill]. … But they also thought there would be a 16 percent increase in enlistments. So I think recruitment is going to increase significantly and the quality of recruitment is going to increase significantly. Over the past two years, the Army has had to accept enlistees who need a waiver of their education or some of their behavior requirements, and I don't think this is how you build an all-volunteer army.

How will Dartmouth finance the share of the tuition that the bill suggests should come from private colleges and universities?
Dartmouth will do fine. I don't think it will have a major impact here. We'll happily partner with the government to encourage more of these young man and women to come to school. I think that will be true among all of the Ivy-type private schools. It might become more complicated among some private colleges that do not have the money to provide need-blind financial aid right now. But the government level of support here should be consequential enough for those schools to be a part of this, and quite frankly, this has to be about more than money. The money should help GIs get over the sticker-shock and to raise the ambitions and aspirations and bring into the American-dreamer category more young men and young women.

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