Is It Time to Revive the GI Bill?

How much should we offer the troops?


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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  1. I’m glad to see Reason remembering that there are some people worth paying good government benefits. I would wish that the GI bill not expire 10 years after a discharge, but be used for that veteran’s children. I will be using the GI bill soon and would not want to see anyone trying to get rid of it and replace it with cash. I think that it should only go towards education. Low Interest VA loans should be used for starting a business.

  2. Or, we could stop fighting pointless wars.

  3. I don’t see what’s wrong with the current program. IIRC, every enlistee gets the GI Bill and if you enlist in an in-demand MOS you get the Army College Fund on top of that. I was on the six year program and it still did not run out until my final semester.

  4. Not sure what the headline means by “Revive” the GI Bill. It never went away. The proposed legislation doesn’t even read as a replacement rather a completely new program.
    Some states already have programs the offer full tuition to state university for veteran from that state. Perhaps they should promote more states creating such programs but is it necessary to increase Federal spending on new programs?
    I’d prefer to see and increase in base salary first.

  5. The current program works fine for me. Or it would, if the VA would get off its ass and process the paperwork.

  6. I agree with Daniel, as a veteran I don’t think the G.I. Bill needs to be bumped up much considering that there are ample opportunities even while in service to earn college credits without even tapping into your G.I. Bill. I wouldn’t be opposed to changing it to a cash program (a lot of people don’t necessarily want a degree or, like me, already had a degree when they entered service) but as Ben and Daniel point out we already have low-interest loans and educational programs of various types available to vets at the federal and state level.

    Frankly, if they were going to spend money on anything to help the vets I’d prefer they spent it almost exclusively on the V.A. It’s a system that’s perpetually broken (because it’s socialized medicine), I don’t believe that it’s a program to which a state or private sector alternative realistically exists (because of the nature of the job, the exorbitant costs, and the risk factor of the population), and there’s every indication that the Bush administration has been gutting the program over the last couple years to cook the books on the war’s cost.

    It just seems that Webb’s bill is addressing an issue that doesn’t really need to be addressed and frivolously spending money that could be put to better use elsewhere.

  7. By saying they should spend “exclusively on the V.A.” I was referring to medical services that the V.A. offers. Sorry, should have specificied.

  8. I don’t know about most people on my right and left, but I feel like we (Soldiers) get enough, especially since we volunteer. Enlisted bonuses are huge right now (as Chapman indicates). Pay is decent and the benefits are great as well. Top all that with a gushing public that turns all of us into Audie Murphy, and the average American Soldier has it pretty good.

    There’s a second-order effect that Webb is failing to consider: officers are displeased that their just expected to stay in while their enlisted counterparts are offered a small fortune to stay in. We’re hemorraghing company-grade officers, and there is still no retention plan for that. The main incentive for people to join the officer corps is the ROTC scholarship, which offers (you guessed it) full tuition, living stipend and books. If you decide to give that to everybody, there’s no incentive for people like me (who swtiched to the officer side from enlisted) to even bother taking on the extra responsibilities.

    We’re making initial entry enlisted Soldiers a very lucrative career path while ignoring the experienced leaders. Pile-on this idea (that anybody can receive, de facto, a scholarship that I had to compete for and work hard to get) and you’re never going to get another second lieutenant in your life.

  9. one caveat of this new plan: why limit it to public universities? unless you’re in california or north carolina, you’re shit outta luck of going to a good school

  10. you’re never going to get another second lieutenant in your life

    Oh, thank god! Are you sure?

  11. I think raising the base salary and providing better medical care makes the most sense.

  12. “We owe this much, he says, to “our heroic veterans who have sacrificed so much for our great nation.”

    I, for one, am so tired of the worship at the feet of our “heroes” of the military / police / firefighters, et al. and telling of their great sacrifices. They get plenty of benefits and they all volunteered.

    I volunteered in the late 70’s, when people were still calling soldiers baby killers and films like the “Deer Hunter” were coming out. I was doing what I thought was right and got the VEAP program, a far cry from the present bonuses and the New GI Bill.

    I got through college on VEAP plus loans just fine. I would think that the help soldiers are getting now for school is even better. Good for them.

    Let them get out into the real world and meet deadlines and budgets with clients who can stop paying them or take their business elsewhere. Let them work on all the government holidays and get no commander’s time or payday activities. Soldiers now days have got it pretty good.

  13. In today’s Army, I understand that guard duty is limited and KP is non-existent. Basic training is dumbed down and disneyfied. Can’t cuss at the little babies in basic training or they might cry and get a Congressional Investigation started on the DI.

    I have read the Army Times a few times and was not surprised to see the letters to the editor regarding unprofessional appearance and manners in and out of uniform and on and off post.

    We may be getting better educated soldiers, but IMHO they are spoiled and whiney for the most part, with the exception of the combat arms and special ops folks.

  14. Disclaimer;

    I was 82C1P MOS with 11B secondary. Anyone in combat arms will know what I did for a living.

  15. If we don’t have enough warfighters to go to Iraq, just pay the market price.

    We spend about $100 billion per year in Irag, figure we have 100,000 people at risk. Give every warfighter an extra $100,000 per year they are in Iraq, at it only costs you another $10 billion.

    Why force people to spend their money on education?

  16. There is a third problem with the proposal by the Senator. If the government will be able to cover the tuition of the most expensive college of the state the recipient lives in, then that would cause an upward drive of the cost of college tuition.

  17. I was 82C1P MOS with 11B secondary.

    OK, so… artillery?

    Well, I was 84D / 26T20 — but wasn’t everybody an 11B secondary? (-:

  18. When you look at what officers get paid vs Enlisted pay and you consider the fact that they already have a degree, there are plenty of reasons to be an officer.

    Today’s military is the product of the Vietnam generation’s complaints. That military was a product of WW2’s complaints. While we hear complaints about discipline, those servicemembers usually take care of themselves and don’t re-enlist or get discharged before they are ever put in a position of power. Remember, WW2 and Vietnam had thier undisciplined servicemembers. The military makes changes to keep up retention and improve training. This is why it is no longer acceptable (unlike WW2) to have training exercises with casualties. Durring WW2 a training exercise could routinly result in some ammount of deaths. (look at the Normandy invation training exercise) The less intense boot camp serves a purpose to train and not make people depressed to the point that they run away. The military works hard to keep itself running well. It is not funding, but leadership that has made us the greatest military in the world.

  19. I’m glad to see Reason remembering that there are some people worth paying good government benefits. I would wish that the GI bill not expire 10 years after a discharge, but be used for that veteran’s children

    Hereditary benefits for serving in the military?

    Want us to call you “Sir Ben”, to?

  20. negatore said: “Basic training is dumbed down and disneyfied”

    I understand why you’d say that Basic is less physically demanding and mentally excruciating than in the old days, but to say it’s “dumbed down” is inaccurate.

    The one drill sergeant I had who was an 11B said that even though the Army sort of coddles recruits more than he’d like, they teach us a lot more as far as warrior tasks and drills than they did back when he was in IET.

  21. I agree with a previous post. Stop fighting wars that don’t matter to us. We should be more worried about our nations debt than fighting in other countries that don’t accept Americans.

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