(U-WIRE) – This fall, colleges may find themselves dealing with an issue that’s been largely kept at bay for some 60 years. The Post-9/11 Veteran Educational Assistance Act, signed by President George W. Bush last June, will go into effect on Aug. 1 – leading to a massive overhaul of the nation’s laws regarding educational opportunities for returning veterans.
Revising the language of the 1944 GI Bill, which was written for returning World War II veterans, the new additions will significantly expand the number of veterans who qualify for government aid.
Requirements to receive benefits under the new bill include a high school diploma or its equivalent and at least 90 days of active duty service on or after Sept. 11, 2001. Benefits are also available for service members who were discharged due to a “service-connected disability,” according to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Web site.
Those who meet the requirements are entitled to a specified amount of federal funding that corresponds with the amount of time they served in uniform. A veteran who served for at least 36 months, for example, could receive the maximum amount of benefits, while a veteran with at least a year of duty could receive 60 percent of the benefits available.
Wherever returning veterans fall on the scale, their federal aid will touch nearly every expense of college life that non-military students dread every new semester – including money for tuition and fees and generous textbook and housing stipends.
In any case, those who receive government aid must show proof of their honorable discharge from the military. A largely overlooked yet important aspect of this law concerns the discrimination that connects it to the military’s 1993 “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law, which dishonorably discharges openly gay and lesbian service members. As Congress and the White House move – ever so slowly – to repeal the discriminatory Clinton-era law, they must remain mindful that the law forbids extending the benefits to the thousands of gay and lesbian veterans who have as much a right to receive government funding as any straight, honorably discharged veteran does.
When viewed through the lens of history, the GI Bill’s first wave in the mid-’40s transformed the nation – easily making it one of the most important pieces of legislation of the 20th century.
As famed presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin said, “(The bill) meant that blue collar workers, a whole generation of blue collar workers, were enabled to go to college, become doctors, lawyers and engineers, and that their children would grow up in a middle class family.”
The bill is credited by historians and veterans groups alike as being the key player in the creation of an American middle class whose actions continue to affect every following generation. It meant, for example, that going to college after high school would become the norm for much of the nation’s youth, as it is today. As college enrollment boomed in the ’60s, it brought with it a rise of student activism that undoubtedly shaped the campus we walk today.
As university students, we should be invested in how the new law is implemented for the simple fact that many of the returning veterans will be in our age range. They are our friends from high school who, while we chose to come to UT, decided instead to enlist in the military. They were the ones who, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, felt compelled to fight the nebulous and immoral enemy that attacked their nation.
Questioning the reasons they chose to enlist and inserting our individual opinions on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan into a decision on how we move forward is futile and immature.
In perhaps the most ironic twist in the GI Bill’s history, when it was first being debated in Congress in the early ’40s, a slew of university presidents warned of the potential bill’s negative effects on their campuses if it became law. The former president of Harvard University said the bill would allow “unqualified people, the most unqualified of this generation” to get into college. The president of the University of Chicago thought the bill would produce “educational hobos,” Goodwin said. It would be impossible to find a university president expressing a similar sentiment today.
Facilitating veterans’ difficult transition to civilian life – and perhaps even more difficult transition to college life – will be a burdensome task for universities. But we can be certain the product of our effort will have ramifications far beyond our generation.