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Expanding the GI Bill

It is a curious, though probably inevitable and to some extent proper, function of small-d democratic politics that grand social schemes will never be wholly attempted apart from times of social upheavals that panic reluctant legislators into action.  And so, today, universal access to reasonably comprehensive health care is politically impossible; the best we can do is agree that at least children and the elderly poor should have access to care.  Universal access to welfare is impossible, and the best we can do is implement a system that only helps the deserving poor, which is to say, the poor who are most like us.  And universal access to higher education is similarly reserved for the deserving, at the federal level a category normally limited to strong levels of support for veterans and the disabled, with lesser support for students in disadvantaged poorer areas and some even lower level of support for loans to the children of the middle class and for those interested in vocational and community college training.

When such categories of support are expanded, then, I tend to react with conflicted feelings, pleased that a fundamental mechanism of social enfranchisement has been extended, sad that so much distance remains before all benefit.  Even so, the recent and historically large expansion of the so-called GI Bill educational benefits is major good news, both for soldiers and their families but also because the expanded program’s generosity signals a faith in the power of higher public education to contribute to the national good that I hope will spur future additional investments.

I don’t mean to underplay the significance of the governmental contribution to public higher education, which remains high in actual dollars even while the amount is falling fast on a per-student basis and as a percentage of total university revenues (in 80-81, state and local governments paid half the bill for public colleges and universities; by 99-00 it was down to just a third).  At the federal level, funding for basic research has remained flat or is falling depending on the reported measure, and certainly for the humanities inflation-adjusted levels of support have cratered.

So the news last week that the President had agreed to sign the second largest expansion of the GI Bill since its initial passage in 1944 was especially welcome.  Thousands, and over time perhaps hundreds of thousands, more mature adult students will flood into state universities.  The common expectation seems to be that the $4 billion annual price tag (commonly described as growing to a $60 billion over-a-decade investment) will rise significantly as eligible cohorts move into military retirement, especially because the funding formula links to the highest tuition charged in the veteran’s home state public university system and because it makes the same deal available to reserve and National Guard units.  At President Bush’s insistence the educational benefits can also be transferred to spouses and children (this was part of his strategy to make the bill less likely to trigger an exodus from military service).

Signed into law by Franklin Roosevelt, the “Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944” helped pay for college for as many as 7.8 million veterans from enactment to 1956.  The total program cost (actual dollars = $14.5 billion) converts into a 2005 inflation adjusted amount of $158 billion.  Thus the original GI Bill dwarfed all subsequent federal investments in higher education except for the 1966 Vietnam Era GI Bill (2005 dollars = $248 billion), including the 1958 National Defense Education Act (a response to Sputnik, $3.9 billion 2005 dollars) and the 1952 Korean GI Bill ($33 billion 2005 dollars).

This expansion will not reproduce the absorptive challenges faced by American universities in the immediate aftermath of World War II, when millions of returning soldiers flooded campuses (the image above shows a “dorm” created by Harvard to handle the veteran influx), though it will infuse large and much-needed new revenue streams into state public university budgets.  But one can hope that the maturity of life experience veterans bring to the classroom will help produce the same kind of national and civic-minded leadership as the original FDR bill – Gerald Ford, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Bob Dole, Joseph Heller, Frank McCourt, and Norman Mailer all went to college on GI benefits.  My own family has benefitted from GI Bill support, as did a number of my college professors who got degrees on the GI Bill and then remained in higher education, hooked by the intellectual enterprise.

Of course new investments in veteran’s educational benefits have never been simple or politically easy.  Politicians on the right (among them John McCain) worry that making veterans benefits too sweet will induce good soldiers into jumping out of the military prematurely, thus eviscerating force readiness and creating the problem of too much turnover in the ranks.  And for some pacifists on the left, the whole idea of prioritizing social goods for veterans is morally objectionable:  the logic of “come learn how to kill people and we’ll give you a big scholarship for it” is deeply problematic, and a number of the pacifist websites include information designed to steer people away from military service who are attracted mainly because it will provide educational support later in life.  As the quick legislative history above documents, expanded benefits thus tend to arrive when the nation finds itself involved in unpopular wars (Korea, Vietnam, now Iraq and Afghanistan) and when politicians scramble to find ways to “support the troops” even if they don’t support the mission.

One irony, of course, is that the concern expressed over an all-volunteer force (that it ends up, especially during unpopular conflicts, attracting a force composed disproportionately of poorer and minority soldiers) means that expanded veteran educational benefits will also benefit lower-income and minority (and probably also first-generation college families) students disproportionately.    This is yet another reason to appreciate the newly expanded GI Bill, whatever one thinks of the military or its complicated intersections with higher education.

SOURCES:  Steve Gunderson, “Investing in America’s Future: The Case for Higher Education,” SolutionsForOurFuture.org; Frankie Sturm, “A New GI Bill for the 21st Century: Honoring Our Troops and Creating Tomorrow’s Leaders,” Truman National Security Project Backgrounder, 16 May 2008; miscellaneous newspaper accounts.


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