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.
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.
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