New Benefits Help Veterans Go to College

The new GI Bill will help veterans—and their families—pay college tuition.

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The U.S. government was not kind to its returning World War I veterans. Former troops were cast out of work when the Great Depression hit. Denied war bonuses that could have ameliorated their plight, tens of thousands of veterans and their families marched on Washington in 1932 to demand government support. President Herbert Hoover promptly ordered them suppressed by the same Army in which they had served.

It was this callous treatment that Congress had in mind when it passed the original GI Bill on the heels of World War II. The law was designed to offer a constructive pursuit—earning a college education—to millions of returning veterans, largely in the hopes of avoiding the sort of violent upheaval the nation had seen in the previous decade. It worked, and in the course of providing college education for millions of returning vets, it also stirred a social revolution, creating a solid foundation for a middle-class America, says Glenn Altschuler, professor of American studies at Cornell University and author of The GI Bill: A New Deal for Veterans.

The family plan. Under the new GI Bill passed by Congress in 2008, another generation of war veterans—and their families—will begin receiving expanded educational assistance this year. The benefits are considerable—more than some Defense Department officials, who were concerned about the possibility of U.S. troops leaving the military to take advantage of the bill, had backed. The federal government will cover tuition and fees for vets at any public university. If they choose private universities, the government will cover the equivalent of the cost of the state's most expensive public university. The law also gives a $1,000 stipend for books and a fairly hefty monthly grant for room and board, equal to the military's housing allowance. Perhaps most striking, troops can transfer these benefits to their spouses and children, a measure that had been proposed by World War II widows—and promptly rejected by Congress.

About 100,000 student vets and their families are expected to take part in the program this school year. They will be further aided because some 575 private universities have joined what's known as the Yellow Ribbon program, in which the institutions have agreed to offer grants that will cover the difference between their own pricier tuition and that of state schools. To encourage schools to sign up, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will pick up half of the cost of the program.

But despite these benefits, some hurdles to student veterans remain. The cost of attending even the priciest public universities in some states is so low that vets will qualify for little federal reimbursement if they choose to attend the far more expensive private schools.

And the recession has reduced the endowments and income of some colleges to such an extent that they now are not able to make up the difference in grants or take part in programs like Yellow Ribbon.

The legislation also has some puzzling loopholes. Thousands of National Guard members who have served on active duty for years, for example, will not be eligible because they were called to service under Title 32, a measure that governs response to domestic emergencies or homeland-security missions. Congressional officials attribute such oversights to hurried negotiations in the run-up to last year's vote on the bill, and defense officials say that they plan to offer a legislative fix in the 2011 budget.

In the meantime, historians say that although the new GI Bill might not result in the sort of sweeping social change that was ushered in more than half a century ago by the sheer numbers of returning vets, "it has the potential," says Altschuler, "to transform lives of young service members and their families." The challenge now, add student veterans, will be making sure that campuses provide the sorts of services that will help battle-hardened soldiers adjust to student life. Brian Hawthorne, 24, regional director of Student Veterans of America and an undergraduate at George Washington University in Washington, says that good mental-health care on campus will be key. So, too, the Iraq war veteran adds, will be building a sense of community with the incoming freshmen and the older vets who are just beginning their college careers. "This fall, you're going to see the largest influence of vets on college campuses since Vietnam," says Hawthorne. "We'll be changing the landscape of American classrooms."