“Join the military and go to college.” That’s what the recruiters say.
But the deal that today’s servicemen and servicewomen get is a far cry from what their fathers and grandfathers got. When President Franklin Roosevelt signed the GI Bill into law in the waning days of World War II, he saw it as part of his New Deal program. The law, officially called the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, promised returning veterans that the government would pay the full cost of tuition and books at any public or private college or job-training program. It also provided unemployment insurance and loans to buy homes and start businesses.
By contrast, the current Montgomery GI Bill, passed in 1984, asks active duty members to accept a pay reduction of $100 per month through twelve months of military service. When they return to school, they receive $1,100 monthly for a maximum of three years of education benefits. It’s an amount that doesn’t come close to covering the cost of a modern college education, but it does help some veterans–if they can get through the red tape.
In July 2005, 23-year-old Paris Lee was honorably discharged after serving almost three years in the Army. A native of California’s rural, picturesque North Coast where the old-growth redwoods grow, he returned home and enrolled in a free ten-week college prep program called Veterans Upward Bound at Humboldt State University. Lee was preparing to attend Humboldt State in the fall, but this past May he received a letter from the Department of Veterans Affairs denying his application for the GI Bill. “They said I’m not eligible because I served thirty-five months and two days in the Army,” he told me. “Normally you have to serve thirty-six months to get education benefits, so they’re trying to deny me based on twenty-eight days.” After the VA rejected Lee’s application for GI benefits, he sent an appeal letter to the VA regional office in Muskogee, Oklahoma. While he waits for the response, the Army veteran works dealing cards for blackjack, Pai Gow and Texas hold ’em games at Blue Lake Indian Casino east of Arcata.
According to the VA, those seeking to activate their GI Bill benefits must fill out a twelve-page form, which is eventually submitted to the college or university of choice. It’s not uncommon for a veteran to receive letters requesting more information, and VA questions must be answered to the department’s satisfaction. A notice of eligibility usually takes four to eight weeks.
With an application process like that, it’s little wonder that, according to the Department of Education, veterans are much less likely to graduate from college than students who have never served in the military. The department’s most recent data show just 3 percent of veterans who entered a four-year college program in 1995 graduated by 2001, compared with a 30 percent overall graduation rate.
Another reason for that gap is the military experience itself. The Pentagon sells an educational dream to recruits. In addition to promising tens of thousands of dollars for a service member’s college education, recruiters promise future soldiers that they’ll be able to “attend college anywhere they are based and even in the combat zone through Internet classes offered from the college they are enrolled in.”