GWEN IFILL: When President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the original G.I. Bill in 1944, millions of World War II veterans got the chance to receive a college education.
The bill has been updated over the years. But for many veterans who’ve fought in Iraq or Afghanistan, the education benefits have not kept pace.
Right now, veterans can receive $1,100 a month, up to a total of $40,000, which covers only an average of 60 percent of the cost of four years at a public university.
NewsHour’s special correspondent for education, John Merrow, took a look at that gap earlier this year. Here’s part of that report.
JOHN MERROW, NewsHour Correspondent: Former Marine Kyle Williams served two tours in Iraq. After leaving the military, he enrolled at the University of California, but was shocked by the costs.
KYLE WILLIAMS, Former Marine: At UC Davis, it’s going to cost me for the year about $25,000 between rent, books, tuition, and food and living costs.
JOHN MERROW: Williams’ G.I. benefits, about $10,000 for the school year, will cover less than half of that, so he’ll have to go deeply into debt.
KYLE WILLIAMS: For my first year at UC Davis, I’m looking to apply for a private loan, from about $12,000 to $15,000, hopefully to be approved for that, to cover my tuition upfront, books, and extra living costs, and rent.
JOHN MERROW: Williams had hoped his education benefits would go much further.
KYLE WILLIAMS: The fact that you’re not compensated for the type of school you want to go to or the dreams that you may have or the goals that you have is one of the most frustrating things, that not only does it hurt you, but it holds you back.
GWEN IFILL: Veterans like Kyle Williams may now be helped by a new law, signed only yesterday, that will more than double G.I. bill benefits, covering the cost of a full four-year education at the most expensive public university in state.
To qualify for the tuition, fees, and housing stipend, veterans must have served at least three years on active duty since 9/11.
Inflation ran program aground
GWEN IFILL: For more on all that, we turn to Eric Hilleman, deputy director of national legislative services for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, a group that strongly backed the bill.
ERIC HILLEMAN, Veterans of Foreign Wars: Thank you very much, Gwen. I appreciate the opportunity to be here.
GWEN IFILL: And congratulations on getting the law enacted. So how did the G.I. bill get so badly out of date over time?
ERIC HILLEMAN: You've got a number of factors at play. First and foremost, you have a rising cost of -- or, excuse me, rising inflationary cost of education in the nation.
The inflationary rate for education is approximately 5 percent to 7 percent annually. And the current G.I. bill is fixed to the Consumer Price Index, which is about 2 percent to 3 percent annually, so it becomes quickly outpaced.
The last time there was a major overhaul in the G.I. bill, it was a peacetime benefit in 1984, architect Sonny Montgomery.
GWEN IFILL: Former congressman.
ERIC HILLEMAN: Yes, former congressman. That bill was founded in a peacetime era. It had the goals and the interests of the nation at heart for that time period.
The utilization of the force has changed somewhat since then. We've got a Guard and Reserve force that makes up about 40 percent of the force in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are truly citizen-soldiers serving in the line of duty.
If you take a look at the use of the force in the current structure, Guard and reservists were never signed up 10 years ago to do...
GWEN IFILL: So this applies to National Guard and reservists, as well?
ERIC HILLEMAN: This G.I. Bill covers the inequities and addresses the concerns with the current benefit across the board.
GWEN IFILL: At what cost?
ERIC HILLEMAN: At what cost to the taxpayers?
GWEN IFILL: Yes.
ERIC HILLEMAN: Ah, good question. Taxpayers this year will be paying approximately a billion dollars, not quite a billion dollars, but that is going on the nation's credit card. It moved forward on the supplemental in the House and Senate in the previous month. It was passed out of the Senate on Thursday of last week. The G.I. Bill out-year costs will have to be budgeted for. And not to get...
GWEN IFILL: In other words, nobody basically is paying for this right now. It's just being added to the deficit.
ERIC HILLEMAN: No, as part of the cost of war, it is on the nation's credit card, absolutely.
Aim to reward and improve force
GWEN IFILL: What did it take to get this enacted? This was not a slam-dunk, by any means, when it was first introduced by Senator Jim Webb.
ERIC HILLEMAN: No, Senator Webb introduced this bill his first day in office. He went in to office with this concept in mind, with a World War II-style benefit.
My organization, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, has long held an idea or a concept for a World War II-style benefit for the 21st century.
When Senator Webb introduced his bill, on January of '07, we responded immediately with a letter of support for the senator and started working this issue to try and gain attention for it and get collaborative efforts involved.
GWEN IFILL: But there were some questions raised along the way by the president and by Republicans in Congress and some Democrats...
ERIC HILLEMAN: Absolutely.
GWEN IFILL: ... who said, you know, this is going to drive people away from the Armed Forces. They're going to take advantage of this money and not re-enlist.
ERIC HILLEMAN: There was a lot of concern about giving a robust benefit to veterans, that it would bleed qualified and talented young people from the force, which the military desperately needs right now.
GWEN IFILL: What was the answer to that?
ERIC HILLEMAN: The answer to that was the transferability program. The transferability piece was added to help as a retention tool. The G.I. Bill has long served as a recruitment tool and it has strengthened the force with a promise of a new education to all members of the Armed Forces who sign on the dotted line and serve their time.
It's a powerful, very powerful recruitment tool. The retention piece allows an individual to transfer a portion of their benefit or all of their benefit at different points in their career for additional service to a spouse or a dependent.
GWEN IFILL: So you can accumulate time at different points in your career and add that all together to make that three-year minimum?
ERIC HILLEMAN: Well, to simplify, for transferability, a servicemember at the six-year mark would receive 36 months of eligibility. That's four years of full-time academic pursuit.
This 36 months can be transferred at the six-year mark for a four-year re-enlistment in the force. At the 10-year mark, a servicemember may transfer 36 months or any remaining months up to 36 to a dependent for another four-year enlistment.
With the terms of eligibility, how you earn eligibility, you have to do post-9/11 service. To get the full-time, active-duty, highest in-state tuition rate, which is the core of this bill, you have to do three years active-duty service post-9/11.
Aid for serving soldiers, veterans
GWEN IFILL: How do you add up -- how many people would benefit from this? Do you have any way of estimating that?
ERIC HILLEMAN: Currently, there are about 500,000 people receiving G.I. Bill benefits right now that would be impacted by this in some way.
GWEN IFILL: And they would use that money only to go to public schools?
ERIC HILLEMAN: No. It can be used at private schools, as well, but the cap is the highest in-state tuition, highest in-state tuition at any school in the nation.
The remaining amount that exceeds the cap, say, at a private institution like Harvard University -- Harvard University is approximately $40,000 a year -- we based on the cap at, I believe, Amherst, which I think is $10,000 or thereabouts in that neighborhood, $10,000 a year. So that servicemember is responsible for that additional $30,000.
GWEN IFILL: I'm confused. Amherst obviously costs more than $10,000 a year. What are you suggesting? That's as much as you could spend there?
ERIC HILLEMAN: Well, whatever the total cost at Amherst in Massachusetts, you would get that amount at Harvard. That remaining balance would have to be made up by the servicemember, but the institution, if Harvard forgives a percentage, the federal government matches dollar for dollar that percentage.
GWEN IFILL: As you were working out that portion of the bill, were you in conversation with private universities? Is there interest for them to reach into their own pockets to supplement them?
ERIC HILLEMAN: Many universities have multibillion-dollar endowments, and they have been trying to seek middle-class and lower-income students.
Veterans bring experience to the classroom that is earned only on the battlefield. The quality of education increases when you have a veteran in the classroom.
When you have a foreign policy debate or a nation-building debate with someone who's been in the streets of Al Anbar or climbed the mountains of Afghanistan, you've got a practitioner's view in the classroom, which very few 19- and 20-year-olds bring to the table. That's a quality student.
GWEN IFILL: So, clearly, this isn't -- there's no magic wand. It doesn't start to go into effect tomorrow. When does it go into effect? How does it go into effect?
ERIC HILLEMAN: There's a phase-in process. And because of the sweeping change that has taken place with this bill, we haven't seen a comprehensive benefit like this since World War II. This is groundbreaking.
Senator Webb deserves yeoman's thanks, Senator Hagel, as well, for working together in a bipartisan fashion to make this happen.
August of 2009 is when the bill goes fully live. I believe, in August of this year, they will do an immediate 20 percent increase to the current recipients of the G.I. Bill. And in August of '09, everyone will be eligible, if they have the qualifying service, for the Webb benefit.
GWEN IFILL: Eric Hilleman of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, thank you very much for helping us out.
ERIC HILLEMAN: Gwen, it's a pleasure. Thank you for the opportunity.