GI Bill Doesn't Cover Costs, Critics Say More than 60 years ago, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a GI Bill that offered soldiers returning from war educational assistance and unemployment benefits. Journalist Edward Humes discusses the World War II GI Bill and the current Montgomery GI Bill — and how veterans' benefits have changed.
NPR logo

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/16469520/16469517" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
GI Bill Doesn't Cover Costs, Critics Say

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/16469520/16469517" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

The original GI Bill gave veterans of the Second World War the option of a fully funded education and the chance to buy a home. The GI Bill still exists, of course, but veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan receive much less.

The current version, known as the Montgomery GI Bill - after its principal sponsor, Congressman Sonny Montgomery - was passed by Congress in 1985, during peacetime. It provides fewer benefits and hasn't kept up with the spiraling cost of college, and many vets say it fails to recognize the sacrifices of men and women who fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. Congress is currently considering new legislation.

We want to hear from those of you in or out of the service. What works about the Montgomery GI Bill and what doesn't? Our number is 800-989-8255. E-mail us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog. That's at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Later in the program: "Cairo," a new graphic novel set in and under the Egyptian capital, and your letters. But first: the GI Bill. We begin with Edward Humes. He's the author of the book "Over Here: How the GI Bill Transformed the American Dream." He joins us today from the studios of KUCI in Irvine, California. Nice to have you on the program.

Mr. EDWARD HUMES (Author, "Over Here: How the GI Bill Transformed the American Dream"): Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: And can you, in a capsule, tell us what's the difference between the Second World War GI Bill and the Montgomery GI Bill?

Mr. HUMES: Well, the original GI Bill had the power to transform the lives of the veterans and the rest of the country along with them. And the current GI Bill is, although modeled on the original, is just - has so much more range of benefits. You can't really make it through college.

In most areas, the strain on veterans that tried to do so is often great because they have to hold down a job, take out loans. And many veterans - and this is kind of scandalous, really - who served duty at war in Afghanistan and Iraq, who happened to be Reserves or National Guardsmen, only get about 27 percent of the benefits, and sometimes not even that.

CONAN: Why is that?

Mr. HUMES: Well, there was a one instance - and this has happened several times, was in the news recently. A group of Guardsmen served 22 months in Iraq right alongside the regular Army troops, but they returned one day early of the necessary amount of time they need to serve - full service in order to get their benefits. So that, basically, for that one day, they got very little in return of the benefits they thought they had in the bank. And it was very clear, since their orders were cut ahead of time, that there's - they - at war, it was engineered, so they would not receive the benefits that they otherwise would have coming.

CONAN: That's their belief, anyway, but the military may disagree with that. In any case, after the Second World War on the GI Bill, not only was your education, the fee of your college, private or public, was paid, you got a stipend and a living allowance. Do those things still count?

Mr. HUMES: Well, you do get tuition assistance now, but the average cost of a public university across America - it's not enough. Some of the lower-cost ones - you can make it through, but there's no such stipend or book allowances or living expenses. You get a maximum amount per month, and this is often just not enough.

Furthermore, there's the fact that a lot of veterans have to support their families, have hold down jobs rather going to school, and consequently just becomes too hard for them to take advantage of these benefits. There was a study that the Defense Department did awhile back that showed, since 1985, only about eight percent of eligible veterans took advantage of those education benefits.

CONAN: You're talking about some differences. Obviously, there are other differences, too, during the Second World War, whether they were volunteers or whether they were drafted, men and women were in service for the duration, not for a specific period of time, as they are now in the all-volunteer Army.

Mr. HUMES: Well, that's correct. There were other differences, too. The original GI Bill reached an enormous segment of American society simply by virtue of the fact that one in eight Americans served in the military during World War II, one in eight Americans alive at the time.

And if you can imagine the impact of spreading out to entire generation free college educations and subsidized home loans and cradle-to-grave medical care and so forth, it was epochal on its effect on America to open up the colleges to a much broader segment of the population. It made a nation of renters into nation of homeowners. It's profound in its effects.

Today's GI Bill, which is about a fraction under 1 percent of the U.S. population, and so its society-wide benefits can't possibly match the original.

CONAN: Hmm. Well, here to give us an idea of what was involved in the original GI Bill is Jerome Kohlberg. He's the chairman of the Fund for Veterans' Education, which will award more than $4 million in college scholarships over the next two years in Iraq to Iraqi and Afghanistan veterans. He's a World War II veteran himself and earned three degrees on the GI Bill. He joins us from a studio on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. And welcome to the program.

Mr. JEROME KOHLBERG (Chairman, The Fund for Veterans' Education): Thank you.

CONAN: And I wonder, we mentioned those three college degrees that you earned after leaving the military. They were covered on the GI Bill?

Mr. KOHLBERG: They were.

CONAN: And where did you go to school?

Mr. KOHLBERG: I went to - well, first, I came back and finished at Harvard Business School. The day after that, I went to the Columbia Law School and finished there and got the GI Bill, except for the last term. And then my undergraduate school, having gotten two graduate degrees, decided to give me a law - a war(ph) degree, so I got that from Swarthmore.

CONAN: Congratulations. I understand you've gone on to some success since?

Mr. KOHLBERG: Well, I hope so, and that's why I'm very interested in giving back because I think what's happening now is just that terrible. We don't respect what these young people have done. They've given the best part of their lives plus put themselves in danger, and here we are, arguing about the cost of an education.

When I got it, there were seven or eight million GIs that got their education. And that was the best investment this country could have done. It came back to our country many fold. And I'm hoping that Congress will do this. It can all be private, but I'm hoping that other people will join me in fighting for veteran education.

And I think it's so important that our GIs get an education and replicate what we had in the Second World War, which restored the middleclass and the gave the leadership to the postwar world and restored our place in that world.

CONAN: It sounds like what you're saying is that we have a peacetime GI Bill, when in fact we've been at war now for six years.

Mr. KOHLBERG: Absolutely. And the Congress just has to step up. I've tried to lead the way, and other people starting to follow. I just think it's so important. I saw the other day that there was a pork bill for $25 billion. And if Congress can do $25 billion in pork without even elucidating where it goes, it can certainly give our GIs a needed education.

This was - the GI Bill of 1944 was the most important legislation that the country had, in addition to the Marshall Plan. And it's got to be replicated, and our obligation to these young people coming back who've done so much for us, and we sit here just on our duff doing nothing.

CONAN: Tell us about the Fund for Veterans' Education. Why did you establish it? While we're hearing why you established it, what will it do?

Mr. KOHLBERG: It will give scholarships to returning GIs. We've given 11. Starting on Thursday, we're going to give two at least to each state. And I hope I will supplement what I've already put in, and I hope that others will join me, and we will start to do what should be done. We cannot give the living stipend, the tuition because that will be taxable to the GI, so that's just is silly. But I'm hopeful the Congress will change that and enable the GI to at least go untaxed.

And I'm hopeful that we can give larger amounts because the way things are, the GI has only enough to pay for the tuition, and that means he probably has to go to school near his home. So if we can expand that, he'll have a much greater choice. When I was eligible - if you got in to Stanford or whatever it was, you got your full tuition paid. You had your living paid. And when you got out, you could get a GI Bill - a GI mortgage. And if you wanted to build a house, you could even get preferential materials of building that house. So the attitude toward the veterans is one with gratitude. Today, we haven't shown that gratitude. We've got to.

CONAN: Obviously, the fund, as it's presently structured, would be, what, about 100 people per year. And if more people join you and if you devote more of your considerable resources to this, that could go up. But we're still going to be talking about hundreds maybe little thousands per year, when many tens of thousands of people would be eligible normally.

Mr. KOHLBERG: That's right. But the annual cost of what is really needed is about two to three billion dollars a year, that's all. We're spending close to a trillion dollars for the war - this should be regarded as the cost of the war. And this is the best investment this country could possibly make. It's got to come, and I'm hopeful that people will slowly realize what we owe these returning people, and how good it will be for our country.

CONAN: Jerome Kohlberg, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Mr. KOHLBERG: Thank you.

CONAN: Jerome Kohlberg, chairman of the Fund for Veterans' Education, which awards college scholarships to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. He joined us from a studio in Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts.

We're talking about the GI Bill, what works and what doesn't. We'll also talk with a reservist who has served in Iraq, now a fulltime student with some help from the GI Bill. And we want to talk with you as well. If you're in or out of the service, do you use the GI Bill, what works, what doesn't? 800-989-8255. E-mail: talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're discussing the Montgomery GI Bill today. It helps many veterans with tuition costs for college. But as the costs of college go higher and higher, critics say it's not doing enough. We'll talk with a reservist in a moment. We want to hear from those of you in or out of the service - what works about the Montgomery GI Bill, what doesn't? 800-989-8255. E-mail: talk@npr.org. Our guest is Edward Humes who wrote the book, "Over Here: How the GI Bill Transformed the American Dream."

And let's see if we can get a caller on the air. This is Dan(ph). Dan is with us from Sacramento in California.

DAN (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air, Dan. Go ahead, please.

DAN: Oh, thanks. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

DAN: First, I want to really thank you for actually taking this issue. I'm a vet. I got out of the service, out of the Army, in '99, went to school, worked my butt off at a community college. My grades were good enough. I could have gone to just about any school I wanted. I was accepted at Berkeley, but I absolutely cannot afford to live there. I mean, there is just absolutely no way without a little more assistance, without, you know, any - the GI Bill wouldn't even cover the tuition there, really, that I could even afford to go to some of the schools, you know, to A schools that I was accepted at.

CONAN: So - and you're obviously in Sacramento, this would be in-state tuition levels.

DAN: Yes.

CONAN: And even at that, in-state, the GI Bill would not cover it.

DAN: Well, this is - well, I was talking about Berkeley. And Berkeley is kind of a special case because the Bay Area, which is, you know, just as about as just about any place on Earth. But, you know, if I had wanted to go to, you know, just about any other school, if it was out of state, I would have really been, you know, I would have had out-of-state tuition at least initially and then I would have had, you know - plus living expenses, plus everything else. And there's just absolutely no way I could have covered it.

CONAN: Was the GI Bill part of the reason you went in to the military in the first place?

DAN: Actually, it was the entire reason I went into (unintelligible). I came from a very small rural community and it was the only way I was going to college, and I knew that.

CONAN: Edward Humes, I think Dan illustrates a lot of cases of people who thought the GI Bill and its ability to help pay for college was a main reason they went into the military in the first place

Mr. HUMES: That's exactly the problem that we're seeing is that here is a young person who has done service in the military and who is eligible to attend a really fine school and simply can't do it, because over time, the benefits with each passing conflict and period of peace have shrunken relative to what it cost to get an education or to buy a home.

And it's really sad because if you'll look at what fully funding education cost for our veterans has done for the country in the past - doctors, lawyers, engineers, inventors - you know, the people who built much of what is keeping us afloat today was paid forth and obtained through those education benefits. So it just, it breaks my heart to hear that someone is being denied for financial reasons because the GI Bill has fallen short to perform in a school like Berkeley or any other college that would accept them.

CONAN: Dan, what are you going to do?

DAN: Well, this is one of my problems with the GI Bill was - and I just kind of want to point this out - coming into the GI Bill program, I didn't have - I had never taken SATs or anything, so I didn't go directly to a four-year college. I started off at a community college, which burned up some of the benefits that I did have. And I know a lot of other veterans who have to start that way, you start small and then you build. But you end up burning off what you do have getting there. What I'm going to do is I'm going - I've had to drop out of school and back to work and I'm just going to end up paying for myself, basically. That's all I can do.

CONAN: Well, Dan, good luck to you. We appreciate the phone call.

DAN: Thank you. Thank you very much.

CONAN: So long.

Let's go now to, this is Jane(ph) and Jane is with us from Ohio.

JANE (Caller): Hi. Yes. Thank you for taking my call and thank you very much for covering this topic. I just wanted to say that I was in the military, I served. And when I - I have the GI Bill written into my contract. When I was in basic training, I guess there is some paperwork that you're supposed to fill out because you get it taken out of your check. You pay into it like social security. They don't make this very clear to you. And I was locked out a bit. In the day that I'm getting out of the military, finalizing my paperwork, finding out what I need to do to get the GI Bill when I finally do go to school, they say we're sorry but it was never taken out of your paycheck. You're not eligible for it. My father who served for over 20 years had the same thing happened to him, and I think that this is really common, and I don't know how it can be addressed or tackled because a lot of people are getting locked out of benefits that they were promised.

CONAN: Edward Humes, as I understand it, to qualify for the GI Bill, the - $100 of each monthly paycheck has to be deducted in the first year of enlistment, is that right?

Mr. HUMES: That's correct. And that is - was a new, relatively new requirement that was added to the original GI Bill. That didn't exist in the past for World War II or Korean veterans. But to continue the program, there were pressures in Congress to both cut the benefits and to transfer some of the costs to the members of the military themselves. So I'm a little surprised to hear that that is not being made clear to some members of our military that it's essential that they have this payroll deduction if they want their education benefits. I think it's certainly something that they need to know, walking in the door, that that's one of the requirements.

CONAN: And so, Jane, as far as you know, this is - her case is not that common?

JANE: No - well, my case, I think, is very common. And I think that, I mean, anybody that has served in that time when you, you know, first arrived at basic training, it's kind of a whirlwind. And to keep everything in track is impossible. And there's never a moment where somebody says to you, look, you need to sign up for this. It'd taken out of your paycheck or you don't get it. There's never that moment.

CONAN: Jane, thanks very much and we wish you good luck, too.

JANE: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it. Joining us now is Benjamin Burnbaum(ph). He's a Marine Corps reservist who served in Iraq, now a fulltime student. He joins us by phone from Kansas City in Missouri. Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. BENJAMIN BURNBAUM (Marine Corps Reservist): Thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: And what did you do in Iraq? How long were you there?

Mr. BURNBAUM: I was in Iraq for six months. We - my platoon provided convoy security in the Anbar province.

CONAN: And obviously, a lot of training before you went there.

Mr. BURNBAUM: Yes, sir, two months.

CONAN: And how much did you receive for school from the GI Bill before you were deployed to Iraq and after you were deployed?

Mr. BURNBAUM: Before I deployed to Iraq, whenever I was in school, I'd receive $230 a month and that was if I was taking fulltime, 12 hours. And since I've returned, I've received $440 a month as long as I keep taking fulltime classes.

CONAN: And as long as you continue to be a member of the Reserves.

Mr. BURNBAUM: That is correct.

CONAN: So you have to be a member - you have to be in the Reserves and I guess also the National Guard to get that money for school?

Mr. BURNBAUM: Correct. I recently spoke with the VA about if I will still receive those benefits after I get out, and they said, no, that the GI Bill, especially for the Reserves, is an incentive to stay in the Reserves.

CONAN: And $440 a month, where are you going to school?

Mr. BURNBAUM: I'm sorry, sir.

CONAN: Where are you going to school?

Mr. BURNBAUM: University of Missouri-Kansas City.

CONAN: And you're an in-state student, but even so, I expect $440 does not go very far.

Mr. BURNBAUM: No, it doesn't.

CONAN: So do you have to work as well as being a fulltime student?

Mr. BURNBAUM: Yes, sir.

CONAN: And what are you doing?

Mr. BURNBAUM: I'm currently an intern at the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.

CONAN: And you're doing that I suspect, what, 20 hours a week or so?

Mr. BURNBAUM: Twenty, twenty-five, yes, sir. I've been able to set up my schedule, my class schedule so that I can work about three days of the week during the day and then leave the nights for studying, so…

CONAN: And again, this money is an inducement for being in the Reserves and staying in the Reserves. Is it what you expected?

Mr. BURNBAUM: I can't really say that I really had any expectations. I joined the Marine Corps definitely not for the money. Anyone who joins the military for money, I don't think they have the right idea of what they're getting into. So I can't say that it let down my expectations, but when I joined. But now, it kind of does, especially whenever you only get 36 months of usage for the GI Bill. And so if I take summer classes, when I can only take six hours, I only get - I get about half the amount of money, and then also I'm using two of my months of eligibility for the GI Bill instead of - so if you can equate that, it's basically less money in the long run.

CONAN: So you've got to juggle your studying schedule as well as your finances.

Mr. BURNBAUM: Correct.

CONAN: And as you look back on it now, I mean, do you think that this is fair? Do you think we need a new GI Bill?

Mr. BURNBAUM: I think there are some certain parts that need to be revamped as far as the - how many months of eligibility you have to use it and…

CONAN: To make it more flexible.

Mr. BURNBAUM: Correct. More flexible and instead of - and do it like credit hour basis instead of a monthly basis or something like that or just a flat rate of how much money you're available to receive, you know, in the certain amount of timeframe instead of, you know, penalizing someone for only taking six hours instead of 12 like your caller earlier is saying about the community college.

CONAN: Sure. And you're going ahead, and how much school do you have left?

Mr. BURNBAUM: This is my final semester of undergraduate studies and I'm going to go to law school and also get my MBA at UMKC as well, so I have about another four years.

CONAN: And your eligibility will be up under anybody's bill by then?

Mr. BURNBAUM: Correct.

CONAN: So you're going to continue working part time and paying those bills.

Mr. BURNBAUM: Correct.

CONAN: All right. Good luck to you, Benjamin.

Mr. BURNBAUM: Thank you very much, sir.

CONAN: I appreciate the phone call. Benjamin Burnbam, a Marine Corps Reservist, who served in Iraq as convoy security, with us by phone from his office in Kansas City, Missouri.

And, again, Edward Humes, the rules are different for National Guard and Reserves.

Mr. HUMES: Yes. And I believe there are some proposals now that look at that and perhaps altering it in Congress, because while Benjamin served overseas, his duty, undoubtedly, was every bit as hazardous and vital as the regular troops that he was serving alongside, and yet his benefits are just a fraction of what they receive. And I'm sure a lot of people might think that that's not quite fair. The Reserves and the regular troops, of course, are different in their commitments and what their expectations are. But in the time of war, they're really doing the same service. And that distinction was not drawn in the original GI Bill.

Again, if you served in the military, whether you are pressed into service as regular troops or as a guard - guard's unit or a reservist, you've got full benefits. There is no sort of class distinctions as we're seeing now with our returning veterans.

CONAN: Interestingly, Sonny Montgomery, the author of the Montgomery GI Bill, was responsible for a lot of legislation involving the military; chairman of the House Armed Services Committee for a very long time. But among the things he also did was reforms that made it impossible for the United States to go to war without the Army Reserves and - without the Reserves and the National Guard.

Mr. HUMES: It's interesting. Well, yeah. He was really single-handedly responsible in a lot of ways for keeping some form of the GI Bill alive. It really reached it's nadir during the Vietnam conflict, where the benefits were really quite miserly. And, really, he managed to resurrect portions of legislation to improve it somewhat.

CONAN: Our guest is Edward Humes, an author and journalist. His book, "Over Here: How the GI Bill Transformed the American Dream."

If you're in or out of the military, how does the Montgomery GI Bill work for you or not? 800-989-8255. 800-989-TALK. E-mail us: talk@npr.org. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.

And let's get another caller on the line. Jim(ph), Jim from Seattle, Washington.

JIM (Caller): Hi, there. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JIM: What a great topic today.

CONAN: Thanks.

JIM: I have a little bit of a success story. I'm a veteran, 21 years in the Air Force, and was going in the stay-ins so I got my degree while I was in the Air Force. My son, however, we've had a little talk before he joined the Army, and I encouraged him to sign up for the GI Bill. He did so. And he just got out a few years back. He did one rotation in Iraq and then managed to punch. And we spoke - I had a Cloverdale fund set aside for him - for my children, I should say. And we took real advantage of the GI Bill. He went to a community college. I was able to help him with his - with, you know, to enhance his stipend and for his living arrangements, but we, you know, he got a transfer degree from the community college.

And then, you know, last year he graduated from UNLB with a level E, and that allowed me to save my Cloverdale fund for my daughter, who is now going to Johns Hopkins. So it was a good deal. And - but I agree with your guest. I think we got to do more. And I think that all these guys coming back to get a card, like a credit card, they could go to any university they want and swipe it, and go to school.

CONAN: And Cloverdale fund, quickly?

JIM: It's an education fund.

CONAN: Okay. So you paid into it as a younger man and had matured.

JIM: Yes, sir. Yes, sir. It's like an IRA fund for education.

CONAN: Well, I'm glad it worked out for you and your kids.

JIM: Yeah. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

And let's see if we can go now Joshua(ph), Joshua, calling from New Jersey.

JOSHUA (Caller): Yes, sir. How are you doing?

CONAN: I'm well. Thank you. Go ahead. Go ahead, Josh(ph).

JOSHUA: Yes. I actually joined the Marines in 1992. I served overseas in Operation Restore (Uphold) Democracy in Haiti. I got out of the Marines and went to Money magazine's best-buy-for-your-buck college, the College of New Jersey. And I got to myself for a year, and the $400 a month was not even nearly enough to pay the rent that I would have to pay to even live at school, let alone the tuition costs.

In 1996, ended up having to join the National Guard to pay for basic tuition costs at the college and used the Montgomery GI Bill that I was getting from my service, active duty service in the Marines, to even just pay for food and living expenses. I ended up graduating in 2001, and the total amount of money that I received in support from both the National Guard, the United States Marine Corps combined was less than one-third of the actual cost of Money magazine's best-buy-for-your-buck education at the College of New Jersey, which I estimated and my parents estimated cost us about $85,000, you know, ended up having to go to my father, who's a disabled Army officer, served during Vietnam for two years on active duty.

And the Montgomery GI Bill is a scam. It is not what it used to be 50 years ago or 40 years ago. And, you know, my father and my grandfather served in the Army, and that for a Marine to have to go back into the Army to pay for Money magazine's best-buy-for-your-buck college, that's an atrocity.

CONAN: Joshua, you made it out to college?

JOSHUA: Yes, sir. I graduated in 2001 and I - class of 2002. I finished classes in 2001. They let me walk in 2002. And I've been working for the Department of Labor ever since.

CONAN: Well, congratulations and thanks very much for the call. I appreciate it.

JOSHUA: Thank you.

CONAN: And I want to ask you, Edward Humes, everybody, including our earlier guest, Jerome Kohlberg, says, well, you know, Congress can truly afford this if they - well, all of that is easily said and much more difficult to do. In this current political climate, do you think it's realistic to get a World War II-style GI Bill?

Mr. HUMES: Oh, this - I don't think there's any question that the original bill, which was totally bipartisan, no way does it pass today. It's too big, too much of a government program. You know, in that era, government programs were not viewed as evils. They were viewed as possibly doing good in the world, and that's not really the way we seem to think anymore and haven't for sometime. But, the fact is, it did do good.

And furthermore, there's absolutely hard evidence that it paid for itself. Congress did a study a few years back. It showed that for every dollar that we paid for the education of our veterans, it returns $7 to the economy in terms of their increased earning, increased taxes paid, increased productivity. So it was money well spent, and maybe Congress needs to start thinking about what its success were in the past.

CONAN: Edward Humes, thanks very much for your time today.

Edward Humes, author of "Over Here: How the GI Bill Transformed the American Dream." He joined us from the studios of KUCI in Irvine, California.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.