Sinking in education debt, Friends University freshman Amariee Collins was intrigued by Air Force ads promising to help pay tuition. So, shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attack, the Wichita, Kan., student deferred her dream of a degree and volunteered for active duty. Four years of stateside service later, she enrolled at the University of Houston and made a heartbreaking discovery: She still couldn't afford to attend college debt free. The Montgomery GI Bill would cover only about $11,000 of the school's $18,000 annual cost.
"I could be mad," the 25-year-old pre-med major says now. But she's choosing to funnel her frustration into action. At her part-time job at the campus veterans' center, she warns would-be soldiers about the reality of the education benefits. And she's rallying support for a controversial bill in Congress that would pay nearly all costs for a local public university for post-9/11 veterans.
Americans brought up on the lore of the original GI Bill, which raised millions of World War II veterans into the middle class by offering nearly free rides to universities as expensive as Harvard, are often surprised to learn that tuition inflation has so outstripped today's benefits from the bill.
Many of those are young people like Collins, who respond to recruiting ads promising more than $70,000 to pay for college. They often fail to read the fine print or understand the impact of tuition inflation. Since 2002, for example, the government has raised the standard academic-year education payment by a total of $1,800 to cover inflation. Meanwhile, the cost of attending a public university has risen by about $4,200, and the cost of a private university has risen by more than $7,000. Even more surprising to many are the controversies and presidential politicking bubbling in Washington over a bipartisan effort to give today's 1.4 million active-duty soldiers and 500,000 post-9/11 veterans something close to a debt-free degree.
A bill overwhelmingly passed by the Senate would give post-9/11 veterans 15 years to claim four academic years' worth of payments covering tuition at their state's most expensive public university, textbooks, and rent for a two-bedroom townhouse. Students who wanted to attend a more expensive private college could collect a check for the amount of their state university's tuition and then get a one-for-one federal match for every dollar in scholarship their private school offered. The bill was spearheaded by Sen. Jim Webb, a Vietnam veteran and former secretary of the Navy, and is backed by a bipartisan group of 58 senators, a majority of representatives, most major veterans' organizations, hundreds of university officials, and a Who's Who of retired generals. "There is unanimous opinion on the Hill and in the administration that improvements are needed," says Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of state and a backer of the bill.
Webb, a Virginia Democrat, notes that studies show the original GI Bill repaid at least $5 to taxpayers for every $1 spent on benefits. "You don't lose money when you pour it in somebody's head," he says. "The people who have been serving since 9/11 have given more than anyone in their generation. They have earned the same benefits as their grandparents."
The bill has been at least temporarily stymied, however, by a debate over just what improvements are needed and how much generosity the nation can afford. Leading the opposition: a formidable array including President Bush, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Sen. John McCain, a Vietnam veteran and the presumptive Republican nominee for president.
Gates and other brass are lobbying against Webb's bill, arguing it is so generous that it would make it harder for the Pentagon to persuade experienced soldiers to re-enlist. The Congressional Budget Office predicted the proposal could reduce the re-enlistment rate by about 16 percent, likely forcing the military to pony up billions more in bonuses or other re-enlistment sweeteners to keep its best soldiers in the midst of a war. Bush has expressed concerns about the costs and promised a veto if the House's fiscally conservative "Blue Dog" Democrats follow through with threats to pay for the bill with a "Patriot Tax" on those with incomes over $500,000.
Counterplan. McCain and several other Republican senators drafted a lower-cost and re-enlistment-friendlier bill that would bump up the basic education benefit by almost $3,000 a year and add another $4,200 a year for soldiers who stayed in the service for at least 12 years. In response to requests from the Pentagon, the alternative bill would also allow soldiers who served at least six years to transfer some of their unused education benefits to their spouse or children.
While transferability has won widespread support, the stingier payments have attracted criticism from many of those McCain no doubt hopes will vote for him in November. McCain's proposed $14,000-a-year benefit, while covering the average tuition, fees, and room and board of a public university, is too paltry for the "crazy costs" facing many veterans hoping for a college education, says American Legion spokeswoman Ramona Joyce. Besides, Joyce notes, while the better benefits might lure 16 percent of experienced soldiers out of the service, the Congressional Budget Office also found that it would be so attractive to civilians that it would increase recruiting by 16 percent.
Some campaign analysts predict a compromise bill will likely make it into law soon. McCain is currently polling behind Obama, who is a cosponsor of the more generous bill and may be considering Webb as a vice presidential candidate. Congressional negotiators in mid-June were quietly trying to add transferability provisions to Webb's bill and make a few other tweaks. Their goal: a compromise that helps veterans and allows all sides to proclaim victory.