GI Bill Proposal Expands College Benefits for Vets

World War II GI Bill

Covers: Full cost of tuition at any public or private college or university, including room, board, books and living stipend.

Requirement: 90 days of military service and honorable discharge.

Current GI Bill

Covers: Up to $39,600 toward any public or private college or university. That covers 60 to 70 percent of the average cost of a four-year public institution and less than two years at a typical private college. Reservists and National Guardsmen get a fraction of that.

Requirement: Veterans must contribute $1,200 to $1,800 from their first military paychecks to be eligible. Must have served on active duty for at least two years. Once National Guard and Reserve members leave military, they are no longer eligible.

Webb's GI Bill Proposal

Covers: 100 percent tuition, fees and books at the most expensive state university. Provides an allowance for essentials based on the federal cost-of-living estimate. As an incentive to private schools, the government would also match scholarship funds. Benefits for National Guard and Reserve members would more closely resemble benefits for other service members.

Requirement: Must have served three to 36 months of qualified active duty, beginning on or after Sept. 11, 2001.

After World War II, the GI Bill gave veterans what amounted to a free ride at any college or university in America. Once they had been accepted to a school, they knew their education was paid for until graduation.

Those days are long gone. The current version of the GI Bill picks up 70 percent of the tab at a public college and about 30 percent of the costs at most private colleges. That means that while veterans of WWII could attend Harvard University courtesy of the government, veterans of the Iraq war have to cover nearly three years of tuition at such a school themselves.

A new GI Bill that more closely resembles the original is gaining headway in both the Senate and the House. Despite strong support among Republicans and Democrats, however, the Pentagon has yet to sign on.

Todd Bowers, director of government affairs for the the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association (IAVA) is personally familiar with the limitations of the current GI Bill.

"I was able to complete a semester at [George Washington University], and then I was called up for my second tour in Iraq. During that time, I served in Fallujah, where a sniper's bullet hit the top of my rifle. The fact that I am still sitting here today amazes me."

After Bowers came home, he says, he was determined to finish his studies at George Washington, with the GI Bill's help. But, "I started to fall into a tremendous amount of debt. I was taking out incredible student loans trying to keep up with the tuition costs, and the GI Bill wasn't picking up much more than a few of my books."

So Bowers dropped out. Today, he is working to push forward a new GI Bill, authored by Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), an ex-Marine wounded in Vietnam who also served as secretary of the Navy.

Webb's bill wouldn't cover the entire cost of study at a private school like George Washington, but it would pay for tuition, fees and books at the most expensive state university. It would also provide an allowance for essentials based on the federal cost-of-living estimate. As an incentive to private schools, the federal government would also match any scholarship funds awarded to a veteran.

The bill would also decrease the disparity between benefits offered to active duty soldiers and those offered to members of the National Guard.

"If I serve 12 months, one single tour in Iraq, I will get 12 months worth of benefits of what the active duty receives," Bowers explains. "If I serve three tours of 12 months for a total of 36 months, I still only receive 12 months of benefits."

Altogether, 52 senators have signed the bill, including nine Republicans, but not the Senate's most famous veteran — presidential candidate John McCain.

His office did not respond to calls for this report. Several weeks ago, while on the road, McCain said, "It seems to me that it's a good thing to do, but I haven't examined the bill with the care ... that it needs. ... But we obviously need to do something along those lines."

Democratic presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton support a similar bill, as do 111 members of the House. The Pentagon, however, says it is concerned that it will damage retention — that the extensive benefits would encourage people to leave the military to go to college.

Sen. Webb disagrees.

"If you have a meaningful GI Bill, you're going to expand the potential pool of people who will come into the military. ... We want all elements of our society to be involved in the military when we have situations like Iraq," he says. "And it's only when the mothers of Harvard wake up and worry about their son or daughter that we are going to have a hedge against adventurism."

The senator hopes his bill will be included as part of the Iraq war supplemental legislation that will be voted on this month.

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