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Posted at 10:40 AM ET, 03/ 9/2010

Shalala outlines benefits of new GI Bill

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is University of Miami President Donna Shalala, who explains the educational benefits offered by the new Post-9/11 GI Bill to military veterans and service members. She is co-chair of the U.S. Commission on Care for America's Returning Wounded Warriors.

By Donna E. Shalala

“You Served. Get Benefits.”

That’s the message of a new nationwide campaign kicked off last week by the Veterans Administration to help veterans and service members applying for the Post-9/11 GI Bill. When launching the campaign, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki stated, “We won’t rest until all student veterans have received the education benefit they earned in defense of our nation.”

The original GI Bill—the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944—sent 7.8 million World War II veterans to college or vocational school by the time it ended in 1956. It has been credited with growing the American middle class, transforming the U.S. economy, and boosting college and university enrollments across the country, including the University of Miami. It made higher education a right, not a privilege.

The Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008—the new GI Bill—may not be the game-changer that the 1944 version was.

But the new GI Bill, which began disbursing benefits last August, accomplishes some new and equally important things. It not only helps veterans further their educations, it gives them the means to access the best that U.S. higher education has to offer. To date, the new GI Bill has issued nearly $1.9 billion in benefit payments. The Veterans Administration expects it to ultimately benefit more than 200,000 people.

The reality is that money and opportunity are two different things. Scholarship grants can be deal makers or deal breakers: useful only when they cover the difference between a student’s resources and the true costs of an education.

The previous GI Bill—known as the “Montgomery GI Bill” after the Mississippi congressman who revamped it in 1984—hadn’t kept up with the real costs of higher education. That bill paid a flat amount to veterans for education or training. It didn’t include stipends for living expenses or books, and it required veterans to pay an enrollment fee.

While it was well-intentioned and benefited many, many individuals, the Montgomery Bill actually limited opportunities, forcing most veterans to study at schools with the lowest costs.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill provides veterans tuition equivalent to the most expensive state university where they live, as well as stipends for living expenses, books, and supplies.

In addition, the Yellow Ribbon Program gives veterans the opportunity to study at private universities. At the University of Miami, for example, any contribution we make towards a veteran’s education is matched by the Yellow Ribbon Program, covering the difference in cost between our institution and state schools. This is important. Whether public or private, all schools are different, and each offers something special. The Yellow Ribbon Program acknowledges that some veterans might be better served at a private university.

The new bill also allows veterans to transfer their benefits to a child or spouse. Not even the original 1944 GI Bill did that. This feature provides an important incentive to enlist and to earn the requisite 90 days of active duty.

But it also acknowledges the enormous contribution that those who serve in the military make to society, often at the expense of family. I believe that the new GI Bill adheres to the Veterans Administration motto—from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address—better than either of its predecessors: “to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and orphan.”

Like its predecessors, the new bill allows individuals to improve their employability and to provide for their families. As we all know, college-educated individuals earn more than those without degrees, and they are far less susceptible to unemployment.

But, in the long run, we all benefit. To compete in the global economy, we need the best-trained doctors, engineers, scientists, businessmen and women, teachers, public administrators, and economists. Many of these will be veterans.

Let’s not forget that Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush studied under the 1944 GI Bill, and one of the sponsors of the new bill, Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, used his eligibility to attend law school. Few programs have been more successful at re-equipping our veterans for leadership roles in civilian life.

Colleges and universities benefit, too. At the University of Miami, we are constantly seeking diversity among our faculty and students—not just of ethnicity, religion, nationality, but also of age, economic background, experience.

Most professors will tell you that returning veterans are a motivated group; they study hard, are highly focused, and they bring a unique perspective to the classroom. Many have served in leadership positions. Many have traveled and fought abroad and seen other cultures up close. Nearly all have experienced the implications of U.S. political policies first hand. Those perspectives are too valuable not to be shared throughout the academic community.

What makes U.S. higher education the best in the world is its diversity. The new GI Bill is helping to foster and enrich that tradition of educational diversity by enabling veterans and their family members to attend schools, private or public, that suit their needs. It offers not just money for education, but true educational opportunity.

For more information about the Post-9/11 GI Bill, visit www.gibill.va.gov, or call 1-888-GIBILL-1 (1-888-442-4551).

Donna E. Shalala served as president of Hunter College of the City University of New York from 1980 to 1987, as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 1987 to 1993, and starting in 1993, as U.S. Health and Human Services secretary. She held that post for eight years before going to the University of Miami.

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By Valerie Strauss  | March 9, 2010; 10:40 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Higher Education  | Tags:  GI Bill, educational benefits for military  
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