A GI Bill for All of Us

Uncle Sam has put thousands of veterans through college. Why it makes sense to do the same for everyone else.

| May-June 2002

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Like thousands of GIs before me who somehow survived military service with their lives more or less intact, I re-entered civilian life in the fall of 1974 certain of one thing: I was going to get a free ride through college.

Whether the three years, nine months, and six days I had surrendered to the Pentagon was worth the four years of college that followed is an equation I may never quite work out, but for a working-class kid ignorant of Pell Grants and lacking the academic credentials for scholarships, nothing else made much sense. If I was going to go to college, I'd have to let my Uncle Sam pay for it.

Today, with a very ambitious teenage daughter and an 11-year-old son who reminds me way too much of myself, the question of college is looming ever larger. The funding options, however, seem to be shrinking. Financial assistance is in the midst of a long and steady decline, and the competition for academic scholarships is fierce, all at a time when tuition costs are skyrocketing. There's no free ride from the Pentagon anymore, either; the military will match whatever a GI can put away toward college, but how much of a soldier's paltry salary will be left at the end of the month to put into a savings account?

To hear Adolph Reed Jr. tell it, the answer is a GI Bill for everybody, a free college education for anyone who meets the academic requirement for enrollment. Writing in the venerable left quarterly Dissent (Fall 2001), Reed argues that rising tuition costs (a 170 percent increase since 1970, even adjusted for inflation) and dwindling financial options (federal grants covered less than 12 percent of total tuition and fees in 1996, down from 23 percent in 1980) have filtered out thousands of students who can't afford the debt payments after graduation or simply can't qualify for student loans.

“This state of affairs is inimical to a decent and just society,” Reed writes. “It imposes unacceptable, though typically unacknowledged, human costs in terms of social waste and unfulfilled potential, and it perverts the values of higher education.”

Free college tuition, a common social benefit in other nations, could provide a head start for an entire generation of young people, regardless of class, Reed argues. And it could be done in a cost-effective manner.

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