The argument over whether America can afford the dollars and loss of experienced soldiers that a sweetened GI Bill might cost seem like brand-new concerns. After all, the original GI Bill of Rights is widely considered one of the most popular and successful laws ever passed.
But historians say similar controversies have dogged veterans' benefits for decades. And, just as now, reform proposals divided some of the nation's most respected and prominent veterans.
Although some have argued that the 1944 Servicemen's Readjustment Act was too generous, research has shown that providing four years of free education and training to veterans helped spark the nation's economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s. What's more, because it was offered equally to all qualified veterans, it expanded opportunities for groups that had been discriminated against, including women and minorities, says Cornell historian Suzanne Mettler, author of Soldiers to Citizens: The G.I. Bill and the Making of the Greatest Generation.
But within six years, a backlash developed after a decorated veteran-turned-congressman led an investigation that uncovered massive fraud in the veterans education program, notes University of Wisconsin-Whitewater historian Mark Boulton. He says Rep. Olin Teague (D-Texas), winner of the Silver Star with two clusters and the Purple Heart, also with two clusters, found that many schools had raised tuition to take advantage of the GI Bill's$500-per-year maximum tuition payments. And Teague showed that many fraudsters had opened fly-by-night schools or training programs to strip unsuspecting veterans of their benefits.
To save money and prevent fraud when Korean War veterans started coming home, Teague led a push to simply pay veterans $110 a month, out of which they'd have to pay their own tuition, rent, and other expenses. Veterans thus could easily afford UCLA, which charged just $84 per year in fees, but likely struggled at Columbia, where the total cost of attendance—including room and board—was $1,710 in 1954.
For the next decade, peacetime soldiers got no education benefit at all, as President Eisenhower—a retired general—nixed proposals to pay for the schooling of soldiers who didn't see combat during the Cold War, Boulton says. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, both World War II veterans, also opposed efforts to give peacetime veterans education benefits.
Then, in response to growing political pressure to give returning Vietnam War soldiers education benefits, Congress passed a meager $100-month-benefit—less than what many Korean War soldiers had received, and only enough to pay for the lowest-cost colleges. Small increases followed until 1974, when Congress attempted to raise the payment closer to the full cost of an education. President Ford, a Navy flier in the Pacific during World War II, vetoed the bill, citing cost concerns. Congress overrode the veto, and, Boulton says, Vietnam War veterans started pouring into now-affordable colleges.
But that generosity was short-lived. Within a few years, tuition prices rose, benefits fell, and new laws required soldiers who wanted help with education costs to contribute money from their paychecks.
As tuition outpaced benefits, fewer and fewer veterans took advantage of the education benefits. While about half of the Vietnam War veterans took advantage of their education benefits, only 30 percent of the veterans of the first Gulf War have tapped the less-generous education benefits they were offered, says Clifford Adelman, a researcher for the Institute for Higher Education Policy.
The gap between the veterans' benefit and the cost of college has worsened in the last few years. Now operating under the Montgomery GI Bill, enacted in 1984, the Department of Veterans Affairs annually increases the education payments to track changes in the Consumer Price Index. Unfortunately, college tuition has risen much faster than the CPI. Occasionally, Congress has bumped up the payments in an effort to keep pace with college costs, but the last significant increase was in 2002. Since then, the cost of attending a public university has risen 29 percent, while education benefit payments have risen 12 percent.
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."