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The Best Thing We Can Do to Thank Returning Vets

University Business, Sep 2008

The global war on terror has had a direct or indirect impact on countless servicemen and women and their families. Thousands of our finest soldiers have made very significant sacrifices in their service to our country.

Today, as many of our soldiers are returning or preparing to return home to their families and jobs, many of them face an uncertain economic future. The latest challenge our nation’s finest face is a slumping economy. While some of the men and women who served in the National Guard will return to their former employers, many have found or will find their positions have changed or their companies are offering fewer opportunities. Those who entered the military directly out of high school or after a few years of college will find a tight employment market.

Our World War II veterans faced similar circumstances when they returned home. The Great Depression of the 1930s left many Americans feeling that when “the men returned” the country would again be tossed headlong into a continuing depression. To offset lingering national doubt and to recognize the vital contributions of our armed services veterans, President Roosevelt signed the G.I. Bill on June 22, 1944. The bill authorized federal government support for tuition and other incidental costs for veterans. By 1947, almost half the student body enrolled in higher education was accounted for by the G.I. Bill. Overall, about 7.8 million veterans took advantage of the opportunity.

Hailed as perhaps the greatest economic stimulus package in the history of the nation and regaled as a “brilliant and endearing commitment to the nation’s future’’ by Tom Brokaw in “The Greater Generation,’’ the G.I. Bill transformed an entire country. America became the place where human capital — a well-trained and educated workforce? became the prime driver of a period of prolonged economic growth.

In April, a bi-partisan group of House and Senate members spoke at a rally that urged sponsorship of the “Post 9/11 Veterans Education Assistant Act.’’ More than 260 members of the House and 57 members of the Senate offered to co-sponsor a bill that would extend educational benefits to servicemen and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. On June 30, President Bush signed the “21st Century G.I. Bill” that sets aside $60 billion for our veterans. It will become effective for classes taken after August 1, 2009.

In the arguments leading up to the passage of the bill, some legislators suggested it would not substantially aid recruitment or retention of servicemen and women. Its detractors contended the bill was not lucrative enough when compared to other incentives used to recruit new G.I.s who oftentimes receive bonuses up to $40,000 for reenlistment. Another system of bonuses was also suggested to help veterans buy homes or businesses once they completed their post-service tours of duty.

It is imperative that we, as a nation, properly express our gratitude to these brave men and women. By investing in them and their futures, we are also re-investing in our country. Any investment we make in our troops is worthwhile, but we must not lose sight of the long-term value of a college degree. Sign-on bonuses are short-term investments that provide our soldiers down payments for homes or automobiles, while a college education offers a lifetime of opportunity. A veteran with a college degree, for example, will earn about $1.4 million more over his or her lifetime than a comparable veteran without a degree from an institution of higher education.

Plus, the benefits of graduating from college extend beyond additional income. College-educated individuals also tend to vote more often, participate more readily in community and volunteer activities, and contribute more to charities.

The new G.I. Bill has another considerable advantage as well. Like the original G.I. Bill, the “Post 9/11 Veterans Education Assistance Act” distributes on an equal basis to women and men who serve their country. But today’s college and university campuses hardly resemble those of the 1940s. Fifty-seven percent of the incoming freshmen this fall will be women. The new G.I. Bill will encourage even more women to obtain a college education.

The growing diversity among our nation’s campuses will also be buoyed by the new bill, since the percentage of minorities serving in the War on Terror is far greater than those who fought in World War II. While minority student enrollment has grown significantly in recent years, there still are large groups, such as Hispanics, that continue to be underrepresented. Serving in the military is a great equalizer. It gives minority students the opportunity to learn by doing and to exercise leadership skills while honing other skills. An extended G.I. Bill will allow minorities to move seamlessly into higher education with at least the basic skills necessary to succeed there.

Just as was the case in 1944, the new G.I. Bill will allow opportunities for those who served their country to continue to do so, but in a different way. Those who benefit from the new bill will not only enhance skills through a college education, but by doing so will help create economic well-being for themselves, their families, and their country.

Michael A. MacDowell is president of Misericordia University (Pa.)

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