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New GI Bill may Boost Benefits
At a time when the all-volunteer military of the United States is facing greater challenges both at war and at home, a battle is brewing in Washington over whether the government has a moral obligation to further subsidize the educations of those men and women returning to civilian status.
That battle is starting to heat up at college campuses across the country.
Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., said he adamantly believes the government has a greater obligation to help veterans who served after Sept. 11, 2001. Webb, along with Sens. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J. and Chuck Hagel R-Neb., authored the Post 9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act (S 22), which aims to modernize the GI Bill.
"In keeping with the spirit of the original World War II GI Bill, this improved legislation will give this new generation of veterans an educational benefit similar to what the original 'greatest generation' received," Webb said.
Paul Redmond, a University of Cincinnati senior majoring in organizational communications, is an Ohio National Guardsman who has been deployed twice during his college career, most recently to Iraq in 2005. Redmond said he doesn't expect to get out of school debt-free.
"The GI Bill is not a bad thing, and it's better than nothing," Redmond said. "You still have to work; you're still going to have to make ends meet."
Members of the Reserves and National Guards receive smaller benefits than active-duty military, but Webb's bill would level the playing field - all troops serving at least two years in combat would receive the same benefit.
GI Bill benefits saw some rise in value following the start of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but supporters of the legislation - the U.S. House of Representatives has a similar bill pending (HR 2702) - say that benefits don't come close to covering the real cost of a college education.
The GI Bill benefits max out at about $39,600 for 36 months or four years of college. Tuition costs nationwide have increased 35 percent in the last five years, and benefits cover only about 70 percent of tuition costs at public universities and less than 50 percent of tuition costs at private universities, according to The College Board.
Webb's plan would cap benefits at an amount equal to the cost - tuition, housing and living expenses - of attending the most expensive public university in any state, from about $12,000 to $20,000 a year.
Brad Whitacre, a second-year environmental studies and biology student at UC, served four years with the U.S. Air Force as a machinist and welder, and is using GI Bill benefits.
Whitacre said the GI Bill is not going to cover all college expenses. He currently uses student loans and a work-study position he got through the GI Bill to supplement the benefits he receives.
But educational assistance is one of the top reasons men and women join the military, and recruiters are sometimes accused of misleading potential recruits by telling them that college will be covered.
Whitacre, however, said he knew what he was getting into.
"I don't feel like I was shammed," he said. "My entire squadron was told this is not tuition money, this is living money."
Nationally, Democratic presidential candidates New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama are both co-sponsors of the Post 9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act, as is Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown. Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, is not supporting the bill.
Locally, staffers for Jean Schmidt and Steve Chabot, Cincinnati-area Representatives, said neither is co-sponsoring the House bill.
The Bush administration also opposes Webb's bill. Defense department sources charge that an increased benefit could entice troops to abandon the military in favor of education.
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans for America (IAVA), an advocacy group based in New York, disagrees. They say they believe increasing benefits will attract higher quality recruits and that the GI Bill should be the government's most effective recruiting tool.
Also at issue is the cost of a modernized GI Bill, which would increase to $4 billion a year, up from $2 billion currently. Many in Congress say that's too much.
But Paul Rieckhoff, IAVA director and a veteran of the Iraq war is quick to point out: "The annual price tag for fully-funding college for today's veterans is less than the amount of money we spend every two weeks in the War on Terror."
Economists have also weighed in, suggesting that in the long run, tax revenues resulting from the higher earning power of better educated veterans will easily recover any investment the government may make in the program, as was the case when the original GI Bill was enacted.
But the post-World War II landscape and the today's situation cannot be compared, say some administration sources.
Whitacre seems to agree.
"I do not feel the GI Bill is outdated," Whitacre said. "If you choose [a school] wisely, you could use this money to pay your tuition."
Redmond echoed that sentiment.
"If I got accepted into Harvard," Redmond said, "I wouldn't expect [the GI Bill] to pay for Harvard."
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