If youve seen an action film this summer, odds are youve also seen a slick advertisement touting the benefits of joining the Army or Marinesincluding help paying for college. You wont hear the word Iraq, and as the Washington Post reported last week, it turns out that college help may not be all its cracked up to be.
Although military recruiting literature trumpets educational benefits of up to $72,900, for most recruits the benefit tops out at $38,700. That works out to $1,075 a month for 36 months. It might sound like a lot to a teenager looking for help with college, but its only 75 percent of the average cost of attendance at a public four-year-college or university. To be eligible for those benefits, servicemen and women have to contribute $1,200 up front, out of their own pockets, during their first two years of service. Virtually all do so, but nearly one-in-three never collect any educational benefits, and they dont get a refund. Most important, GI Bill benefits are counted as student financial resources when veterans apply for federal student financial aid, making many veterans ineligible for Pell Grants or subsidized student loans that could fill the gap. For recruits from low-income backgrounds, thats a huge loss.
As a result, many veterans find their post-service higher education options limited to community college or combining part-time college with a full-time jobboth options that dramatically reduce the likelihood theyll ever get a bachelors degree. The Department of Veterans Affairs doesnt know what percentage of veterans actually complete degree programs, but the fact fewer than 10 percent use all their education benefits suggests its low.
The bottom line: our government is essentially pulling a bait-and-switch on the troops. Thousands of young men and women join the military in large part because they think its the best chance theyve got to pay for college. But when their service is over, many find they still cant afford a four year college education. Thats a far cry from the GI Bill that greetedand help createthe greatest generation after World War II. Patriotic Americans should be deeply offended that, while our leaders send servicemen and women to risk death in Iraq, they wont spend the money to send them to school when they come home.
Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-PA), an Iraq veteran, have introduced a bill to raise veterans education benefits so they cover the full cost of tuition, room and board, books and fees. Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) has introduced a bill that would cover those costs and also provide full-time student veterans a monthly $1,000 stipend. Both bills would also eliminate the individual contribution benefit.
The Bush administration says the Clinton/Murphy and Webb bills would be too expensivethe Department of Veterans Affairs estimates the Webb bills cost at $5.4 billion a year. Thats a lot of money, but far less than the $450 billion weve already spent in Iraq, and we should consider the costs of expanding veterans educational benefits as part of our war obligation. We are talking, after all, about people willing to pay everything in service to their country. Surely we can afford to pay for them to go to college.
But theres a deeper issue here as wellthe widening class divide in higher education access. Rising college costs, stagnant aid, and the elimination of high-wage/low-skill jobs have priced many from low-income and working class families out of the public four-year college market (forget about private colleges and universities!), leaving community college, trade school, or the military as their only options for higher education. Meanwhile, affluent parents go to ever greater lengths to get their children into expensive slots at the most elite colleges and universities.
Theres a heartrending contrast between the Posts veterans story and the cover story in the same paper's issue about affluent students taking a gap year between high school and college. Both that articles subject, Bill Day, and veteran Edwin Cadena were accepted to the University of Virginia as high school seniors. Cadena couldnt afford to pay the University of Virginias costs, so he joined the Marines and served in Iraq. Day wants to play hockey for a NCAA Division I school, so he is deferring for two years to play junior league hockey. Theres little question Day eventually will go on to a four year college, at his parents expense. Cadena comes home from Iraq, finds his benefits still wont cover the costs at the University of Virginia, and ends up living at home taking community college classes. If thats not a glaring reflection of inequality, we dont know what is.