GI Bill's educational assistance program needs scrutiny
By Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii)
Posted: 03/10/08 04:32 PM [ET]
Since the conclusion of World War II, Congress has enacted a series of measures commonly known as GI Bills, first in recognition of opportunities and lives put on hold as a result of time served in uniform, then, when our country went to an all-volunteer military, as an inducement to enlist.
Sixteen million servicemen returned from World War II to find a labor market that was not only saturated but vastly different from the one they left to answer the call of duty. I was one of them.
As World War II was ending, landmark legislation established the first GI Bill. Nearly half of the 16 million veterans attended school under that original program. Millions more built new homes and began new lives with the assistance of the federal government.
After the wars in Korea and Vietnam, new GI Bills were enacted as a readjustment benefit and as a means of restoring foregone opportunities to individuals who were drafted into duty, separated from their homes and lives.
In 1973, our country ended the draft and transitioned to an all-volunteer military. Predictably, enlistment dropped drastically and lawmakers looked to reforming the GI Bill as an incentive to serve. The Montgomery GI Bill, enacted in 1985, is the most recent version of what became the "peacetime" GI Bills.
In light of the change to an all-volunteer force, the GI Bill was restructured to serve not only as a readjustment benefit but also as a tool to recruit and retain quality young men and women in the military. By using additional incentives or "kickers" as part of the promised educational benefit, individuals could be encouraged to select specific, critical military operational specialties in hard-to-fill positions.
Ninety-five percent have signed up to participate in the program; more than 70 percent have received financial assistance for education. Billions of dollars have gone to helping veterans and service members pursue a wide variety of educational, vocational, and other types of training - from truck driving to rocket science.
The Montgomery GI Bill has been quite successful; however, I believe it is important that we continue to evaluate how the current structure of educational assistance benefits meets 21st-century needs, especially today, as we have members of our armed forces fighting in two ongoing wars.
According to data compiled by the Congressional Research Service, the original World War II GI Bill - which paid up to $500 annually for educational expenses plus a $50 monthly living expense - would total $11,191 annually or $1,243 monthly in 2007 dollars.
The current Montgomery GI Bill pays $1,101 a month, less than the adjusted World War II benefit and, more importantly, pays an ever decreasing share of the cost of a college education. At its inception in 1985, the annual benefit under the Montgomery GI Bill covered almost 88 percent of the average costs of tuition, fees, and room and board at four-year public institutions. However, even with periodic increases and now with an annualized cost-of-living factor, the purchasing power has continued to fall and now stands at less than 60 percent of such costs.
The educational assistance programs also need to be scrutinized for their impact on members of the National Guard and Reserve - especially since our current military strategy relies so heavily upon their involvement. A major improvement in benefits for Guard and Reserves was made in this year's National Defense Authorization Act - providing for the "portability" of benefits under the educational benefits program (Chapter 1607 of Title 10), but more needs to be done to ensure that there are comparable benefits for members of the Guard and Reserves. There should be equal benefits for equal months of service.
I am also concerned about the deadline to use educational benefits after leaving the military. Today's veterans tend to be older, more likely to have families, and, particularly in the case of members of the Guard and Reserves, often are returning to jobs they held prior to entering on active duty. The current 10-year period during which GI Bill benefits can be used may no longer be adequate. Additional time may be desirable, especially in the case of individuals who, due to other immediate and pressing obligations, begin serious pursuit of an education late in the 10-year period.
Another GI Bill issue was raised by President Bush in this year's State of the Union address, when he proposed that individuals be permitted to transfer all or a portion of their educational assistance to their dependents. While the president offered little additional detail as to how this proposal would be implemented, it is something that is being discussed. Since the Army now offers transferability as a narrowly targeted retention tool, the impact that this would have on the ability to keep talented and trained soldiers remains to be evaluated.
These and many other issues are before the Congress as we continue to grapple with the intricacies and nuances surrounding the issue of educational assistance benefits for veterans. I look forward to continuing to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle and in both bodies to develop and enact appropriate responses.
Akaka is the chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.