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Don’t Diminish G.I. Bill

February 8, 2019

The Navy is on course to have 355 ships but doesn’t have enough sailors to man them. The Air Force is short 2,000 pilots, so about 25 percent of its fighter jets can’t fly. And the Army is about 6,500 troops short of its goal of 76,500 new soldiers. Some 70 percent of today’s high school graduates don’t meet standards. A large percentage of the remainder never consider serving in the military. Fully 80 percent of people in the military have a family member who served, but only one-half of 1 percent of adults are serving in the military. The “reference cohort” is small and shrinking every year. As a family tradition, military service is dying out. Young people joining the military today typically cite a desire for adventure, an interest in being part of something bigger than themselves, the acquisition of job skills, and — significantly — the opportunity to get a college education. Americans have associated military service with higher-education opportunities since the advent of the G.I. Bill, implemented during the last days of World War II. By 1956, the original G.I. Bill had helped 7.8 million veterans pay for college and other training programs. The G.I. Bill is credited with changing the nature of American higher education by making college available to many working- and middle-class veterans. Following the 9/11 attacks, the American military grew substantially. Then-Sen. Jim Webb proposed the Post 9/11 GI Bill, which expanded benefits to increase tuition assistance and added a housing allowance and book stipend. Its big innovation, though, was letting active-duty troops transfer their G.I. Bill benefits to spouses or children. Now the Department of Defense wants to limit the transferability option, requiring servicemen and women to use the benefit or transfer it before they reach 16 years of service. In the short term, this policy probably will save money: servicemen and women with 16 years of service — whose average age is 34 for enlisted ranks and 38 for officers — don’t have college-ready children. But this will have the unintended consequence of encouraging our most valuable enlisted men and women to leave the service. In the long run, that will cost the Pentagon and taxpayers far more money than retaining the benefit would. America needs to retain the best, most experienced people. Rolling back the G.I. Bill’s transferability provision will hinder that goal.

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