Give vets their due: a college education

January 27, 2008|By Finn M. W. Caspersen

After serving in the Navy in World War II, Marylander Charles Schelberg was able to attend Washington College in Chestertown thanks to the GI Bill, which covered all his costs. Mr. Schelberg, who hailed from a working-class family of Chesapeake Bay watermen, was the first in his family to attend college and earned an economics degree that led to a successful career in community banking.

There were millions of Charles Schelbergs after World War II, and the individual success of each one fed the cumulative success of a nation that shrugged off the economic malaise of the Great Depression and stoked the economic engines of the world's most vibrant economy. America took care of its deserving warriors, and the nation benefited greatly.

When today's military veterans return home from their nightmarish tours of combat duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, many nurture dreams of earning a college degree, just as many of their grandparents did after serving in World War II.

Unfortunately, the nation is not responding to their service as it did in Charles Schelberg's day.

Two of Mr. Schelberg's grandsons have answered their country's call. Charles did so after the attack on Pearl Harbor; Matthew and James Schelberg did so after the attacks of 9/11. The brothers both served as Marines in Iraq's Anbar province. They are back home now, and both are pursuing college degrees - under circumstances that underscore the educational challenges facing contemporary veterans.

Today's combat veterans encounter a GI Bill whose stinginess would have been unimaginable to their grandparents. It is sad to chart how far it has fallen and how inadequate are its current benefits. Gone are the glory days of the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 (the formal name of the GI Bill), which enabled millions of servicemen back from World War II to enter the hitherto largely inaccessible world of higher education. The GI Bill helped make the "Greatest Generation" great, paving the way for prosperity and the postwar boom years and permanently lowering the barriers to American higher education. Nearly 8 million veterans filled the nation's classrooms thanks to its benefits.

Yes, the GI Bill still exists, although in a different form now known as the "Montgomery GI Bill," and it still offers education benefits. But today's version makes education benefits a voluntary, contributory program; to receive any tuition benefits from Uncle Sam, you must have agreed in advance to a monthly deduction from your meager paycheck. Worse yet, the benefit is just a fraction of what is needed to meet today's tuition costs. Reservists who have returned from the battlefield earn even less than enlisted soldiers.

By contrast, the grandparents of today's veterans attended college free of tuition payments and free of the burdensome tuition-generated debt that most of today's veterans will shoulder.

While some in Washington have sought to right this wrong by restoring a measure of the benefits of the original GI Bill, efforts have so far been roadblocked in Congress.

This leads us back to Matthew and James Schelberg. Matt attends Pennsylvania's Bucknell University, where his veterans' benefits cover only a small part of his educational expenses. He will accumulate an estimated $60,000 in student-loan debt by the time he completes his undergraduate degree, a heavy burden for a young man who just fought for our flag in one of the toughest trouble spots in the world.

James attends his grandfather's alma mater, Washington College, and his situation illustrates both the problem of a diminished GI Bill and the nascent effort to compensate for its shortcomings. Where government has failed to act, the private sector is setting the example of how America's veterans deserve to be welcomed home.

James is one of the first recipients of a veterans scholarship program created by the Hodson Trust. The program enables Maryland veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts to attend one of the four Maryland colleges the trust has long supported: the Johns Hopkins University, Hood College, St. John's College and Washington College. The scholarship covers all of James' costs of tuition, room and board, books and other expenses not covered by veterans' benefits or institutional aid. While his brother faces years of debt repayment, James' education is covered in full.

Initiatives similar to the Hodson Trust scholarships are emerging across the country. More must be encouraged. But the private sector alone cannot compensate for what the federal government has failed to do. The nation must meet its moral obligation to all the young men and women who have risked their lives in defense of our country's ideals.

We were able to meet the higher education needs of Matt and James' grandfather and millions like him, and society as a whole was the better for it. Today's returning soldiers merit the same.

Finn M. W. Caspersen, chairman of the board of trustees of the Hodson Trust, is also chairman and CEO of a private management firm and chairman of the Harvard Law School Dean's Advisory Board. His e-mail is fcaspersen@theknick.com.

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