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"...they have been compelled to make greater economic sacrifice and every other kind of sacrifice than the rest of us, and are entitled to definite action to help take care of their special problems." [1]


Dr. Scott in the Navy in 1963

These words spoken by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt echo loudly today, with scores of thousands of U.S. military returning from extended duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, including many with lost limbs and emotional distress.

Veterans now, as then, face significant challenges in readjusting to civilian life. They often face poor employment prospects because of interrupted careers and schooling, and rapid changes in the civilian economy while they were being drilled in marksmanship and tactics. For those with serious and profound injuries, even military careers are now out of the question.

At the end of World War II, President Roosevelt signed into law the "Servicemembers' Readjustment Act of 1944." Commonly known as the GI Bill, the Act provided support for education and technical training; loans for homes, farms, and business start-ups; employment transition and job counseling; construction of hospital facilities; and a strengthened Veterans Administration.[2] It created a transition to civilian life and the foundation for a vibrant economy and rising middle class. A similarly bold initiative is needed today, as the current "Montgomery GI Bill" is not designed for today's demands.

The United States faces a "skills" gap and we are losing our lead in knowledge creation. Futhermore, we have critical needs in science, technology, engineering, and management; understanding foreign languages and cultures; healthcare; early childhood education and teaching, and tens of thousands of returning veterans who need up-to-date education and training without accumulating additional debt, serious healthcare needs without the insurance required, and enhanced housing assistance to better meet the realities of today's housing costs. We can address these critical challenges in new ways by providing these new veterans with the education, training, and other support services provided to previous generations of soldiers, marines, sailors, and air force personnel. The GI Bill provided such benefits to the WWII veterans, and they became the "greatest generation" because of their contributions to U.S. society.

These new veterans could become an "army" of college students preparing for careers in areas of critical need, such as those noted above, using their military experiences in other cultures as a starting point for creative problem-solving. While fewer in number than the GIs of 1944, many today have more severe needs, face multiple challenges upon re-entry to society, and now include numbers of women and members of minority groups, all dramatic changes from the 1940's. For instance, since modern medical care has saved lives that previously would have been lost due to injuries that now have lifetime consequences, they need sustained and comprehensive coverage to meet their serious healthcare needs.

According to the Census Bureau, the earning potential of bachelor's degree holder over a holder of only a high school diploma is, on average, approximately 44 percent higher.[3] In addition, college graduates will earn $1 million dollars more in their lifetime than those with only a high school diploma.[4] However, according to a 2004 Congressional Budget Office report, about 60 percent of active duty enlisted personnel surveyed reported having no more than a high school-level education when they began their military service and, while on active duty, only approximately 12 percent obtained their associate's degree and less than 10 percent earned their bachelor's degree.[5] These data are also echoed in a September 2006 report from the United States Air Force. According to a press release, 73.3 percent of the Air Force enlisted service members have some semester hours towards a college degree, yet only 4.7 percent have a bachelor's degree.[6]

For this new generation of veterans, we should reform the Act to provide federal grants to each veteran in sufficient amounts to cover the full cost of tuition, fees, room and board at a state university, with the grant portable to any regionally accredited public, private, or proprietary college. The cost would equal less than a half of a month of expenses in Afghanistan and Iraq.[7] Thus, each veteran would be able to complete a bachelor's and a master's degree if they had not done so already. This would relieve these veterans of the need to take on multiple part-time jobs and more debt, and instead to focus on their education or training program.

This program can pay for itself because increased education results in more stable families and increased taxable income. For example, households in 2004 headed by persons with a bachelor's degree or more represented 29% of households, earned 44% of all household income, and paid 52.5% of all federal income taxes, or $10,071.54 per household, as compared to 23.4% paid by those with no college.[8]

The original GI Bill made homeownership a possibility for many who could not otherwise afford it. Today, we have businesses, schools, colleges, and nonprofit organizations that cannot recruit talented employees because of the cost of housing and school taxes in their regions. A new housing program with terms similar to the 1944 Act and more sufficient to meet today's demands would provide the incentive and support for talented veterans to relocate to regions with employment demand, thus including them in the ranks of tax-paying citizens and providing employees with much-needed talent. Over-payments to Sallie Mae could help supplement current funding without raising taxes.

Ever since the Northwest Ordinance in 1787, the federal government has sponsored programs to educate and train the workforce of the next generation and to encourage population dispersal to areas in need. By renewing our commitment to just these two of the central features of the Servicemembers' Readjustment Act, education and housing, we can continue that tradition, invest in America's future, and express our thanks to those who served us well and made greater sacrifices than those of us who could stay at home. Our economy, our schools, our healthcare system, our businesses, and our communities will benefit.

As a beneficiary of the Vietnam Era GI Bill, and president of a University that welcomed hundreds of GIs to its campus post World War II, many of whom are now active alumni, I have seen first-hand the profound impact such benefits can make. We should work together to offer these new veterans the opportunity to be known as the 21st Century's greatest generation. They certainly deserve it.


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©Robert A. Scott, 2007.

[1] http://www.gibill.va.gov/GI_Bill_Info/history.htm

[2] Ibid

[3] www.census.gov/Press-Release/www/releases/archives/education/007660.html

[4] http://www.uwrf.edu/admissions/Degree_to_Income.pdf

[5] Educational Attainment and Compensation of Enlisted Personnel, February 2004, Section 2 of 3, Defense Manpower Data Center's 1999 Survey of Active Duty Personnel report

[6] "Service demographics", United States Air Force press release No. 082, Sept. 19, 2006

[7] See Appendix "A".

[8] Postsecondary Education Opportunity, December 2006, p.12.

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This page was last modified on January 6, 2011.
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