The Surprising History of Military College Benefits

For decades, politicians have struggled to balance rewarding service against the expense of generosity.

By + More

That growing gap is one reason many veterans' groups are pushing so hard for a new law that would guarantee veterans a benefit that would at least keep pace with the cost of their local public university. And the implication for the federal budget is one reason some influential veterans, including President Bush and Sen. John McCain, have opposed the new GI Bill plan proposed by Sen. Jim Webb, a Vietnam veteran.

Boulton says he sees historical parallels to McCain's opposition to a dramatic increase in education benefits. He compares McCain, a Vietnam War veteran, with Eisenhower, the commanding general of Allied forces in World War II: "Perhaps it is just a strict adherence to fiscal conservatism, but I wonder if their positions as decorated and revered warriors imbued them with an antipathy for soldiers or veterans that might only be serving in the military for the promise of future benefits and rewards," Boulton says.

Cornell's Mettler worries, however, that focusing too much on history may blind Americans to today's reality. People—including herself before she started her research on the GI Bill—"just assume we must be taking care of our veterans.... But when I learned what the current benefits were, I was incredulous."