Steve Chapman

Webb, a Marine Corps veteran, thinks more is in order. His proposal would cover four years of full tuition at the most expensive public institution in the state where the veteran enrolls, plus books, fees and $1,000 a month for living expenses. We owe this much, he says, to "our heroic veterans who have sacrificed so much for our great nation."

He has a point. Given the exceptional and unforeseen demands placed on today's regular military and reserves, there is nothing wrong with the nation deciding to thank the troops in a tangible way. But expanded college assistance isn't necessarily the best expression of gratitude.

In the first place, some people don't want to pursue higher education, and Webb's bill would leave them out in the cold. If we want to thank all our men and women in uniform, cash would be a better option. Some veterans could use the money to go to school, but others could use it to start a business or buy a home.

In the second place, enriching educational benefits has a definite downside: It would complicate the task of keeping our overstretched military at full strength. John Warner, an economist at Clemson University who has studied the issue for the Pentagon, says additional aid could attract more recruits who want to go to college -- but could also stimulate those in uniform to pass up re-enlistment to pursue their education.

If the Webb program became law, Warner says, re-enlistment rates could drop by 5 to 10 percentage points. And some of those hitting the exits would take valuable skills that are hard to replace. Given the intense strains on the military, this is no time to be enticing its best soldiers to leave.

At the end of World War II, keeping people from leaving the military was the least of our problems. President Roosevelt and the 78th Congress tailored their efforts to the unique challenges they faced. The GI bill was perfect for its time, but that doesn't make it perfect for ours.


Steve Chapman

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

 
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