Steve Chapman

When American soldiers returned from World War II, the nation thanked them with the GI bill, which allowed millions of people to go to college at government expense. Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., thinks if it was good enough for the Greatest Generation, it's good enough for this one. He wants to enact a new version of that program -- an idea that may appeal to the heart but should give pause to the head.

The GI Bill of Rights, enacted in 1944, was an exceptional undertaking. It opened up higher education to a lot of people who would never have gone to college without it, transforming American society.

It is now remembered as the visionary product of a nation's gratitude. In reality, the motives were more complicated than that. No one wanted to repeat the experience of World War I, when, as the Department of Veterans Affairs reports, "discharged veterans got little more than a $60 allowance and a train ticket home" -- and later, embittered, marched on Washington to demand their due.

With the Great Depression still fresh in memory, President Franklin Roosevelt's administration was also terrified that hordes of veterans would flood the job market and find no jobs. Sending them to college was seen as a way to avert mass unemployment.

Those factors are not the only major justifications that are absent today. World War II was fought mostly by draftees, who were paid a pittance and kept at the front for as long as Uncle Sam needed them. Today's military consists entirely of volunteers, who signed up knowing that enlistment might mean long combat tours.

Military pay has vastly improved since D-Day. A modern private gets the equivalent of double the salary paid back then, plus benefits that were not available to Private Ryan.

The original GI bill was a way of compensating veterans who had been poorly compensated while in uniform. Our all-volunteer force, by contrast, pays competitive salaries, because it has to, and the competition is particularly keen at the moment. Bonuses for Army enlistment now average $16,500 and go as high as $40,000 -- money that can be put away for school.

That's on top of existing educational benefits. The current GI bill offers some $38,000 for college. Additional aid is available through programs like the Army College Fund, which can nearly double that amount.


Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.
 

 
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