Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 17, 2007

For many young people who enlist in the military out of high school or soon afterward, one of the major attractions of signing up with Uncle Sam is the promise that the GI Bill will pay their future education bills.
But enlistees are finding that the reality often doesnt live up to the recruitment spiel. Just as rising college costs have outstripped family budgets, theyve also eroded the buying power of the government program that once covered most, if not all, of a veterans college expenses.
When the GI Bill was enacted in 1944, it was a remarkably successful program that sought to head off massive unemployment among returning troops by enabling them to further their education. In addition to offering tuition payments, it provided unemployment checks and home-loan guarantees. It was a great deal for the Greatest Generation, many of whom became the first members of their family to attend college. In turn, the nation reaped the benefit of rising expectations and education levels, which helped fuel post-war economic growth.
The GI Bills promise pretty much held true through the Korean and Vietnam war eras, thanks to relatively stable education costs and periodic adjustments in benefits.
But its a different world now. While the benefits account for a substantial chunk of education aid $2.76 billion last year in most cases, a veterans benefits fall far short of paying his or her college tab. According to recent College Board calculations, the current maximum benefit of about $9,000 a year would cover 60 percent of the average cost of tuition, living expenses, books and fees at a typical four-year public college.
Thats not an insignificant stipend, and many civilian students might envy such aid when theyre trying to juggle part-time jobs and full-time course work, while accumulating tens of thousands of dollars in loans. Yet, is partial fulfillment of a debt the best the nation can do for those who offer the full measure of patriotic duty?
Furthermore, because full GI benefits extend only to active-duty personnel, the education deficit is even worse for a large segment of our fighting forces. National Guard members and reservists whove borne a great deal of the combat in Iraq and Afghanistan receive lower benefits. That acts as a disincentive for the bright, ambitious young people needed to fill the ranks in the future. And, as with recent disclosures about substandard care in the VA health system, it calls into question the nations basic commitment to supporting our troops once they leave the trenches.
These are inequities that should command our attention and action. Bills pending in Congress would address some of these issues, including a proposal by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), a former Marine, to expand the GI college benefit and offer a modest monthly stipend. Another measure would give equal benefits to Guard members and reservists, a change surely in keeping with the sacrifices they are called to make. While it may not be feasible for todays GI benefits to be as comprehensive as those available half a century ago, the nation can and should do better by its veterans.