'The Legion has played an important role in the development of every GI Bill'

The American Legion’s Veterans Employment and Education Division hosted renowned GI Bill historians David Whitman and Suzanne Mettler in a roundtable last month to hear important insights on current policy issues, as well as a surprising history of political parties flipping sides and fascinating occurrences throughout the GI Bill's history.

During the roundtable, which was held at the Legion’s office in Washington, D.C., Whitman and Mettler spoke about why the GI Bill matters, especially when it comes to issues that affect veterans.

“Many lawmakers make a big mistake in thinking that today’s veterans’ issues are something new under the sun,” Whitman said. “To a surprising degree, policymakers struggle today with many of the same issues in designing educational benefits for veterans that Congress and the (Department of Veterans Affairs) struggled with after World War II.”

Mettler said today’s GI Bill is the descendent of one of the nation’s landmark laws, the original World War II version that was spearheaded by The American Legion. The bill transformed the postwar American economy and society by providing tremendous opportunities for veterans, and they, in turn, emerged as civic and political leaders in communities nationwide.

“Through the GI Bill, American society recognizes the immense sacrifices that those in the armed forces make on behalf of the nation, and aims to provide veterans with assistance in readjusting to civilian life,”Mettler said. “So that the law’s purpose can be realized, lawmakers need to ensure that veterans and taxpayers are not taken advantage of by those who find business opportunities in the federal dollars provided by the GI Bill.”

As far as fascinating insights and historical facts, Whitman said two patterns stand out. First, there are the myths, or perhaps misconceptions, about the GI Bill and second is the cyclical nature of controversies over educational benefits for servicemembers.

“Ever since the first GI Bill, a pattern has repeated itself,” Mettler said. “The federal government makes new funds available for education, and actors in the proprietary sector find ways to take advantage of them, and problems of fraud and abuse ensue. Eventually scandals emerge, and the media exposes them. In time, lawmakers come together across the aisle to create reforms so that such problems are alleviated or scaled back. Then the cycle repeats itself.”

The original GI Bill of Rights, according to Whitman, is often thought of as the landmark law that sent millions of GIs to college. While that’s true, what is less well-known is that many more World War II veterans used their GI Bill benefits to go to trade schools rather than using their benefits to attend traditional four-year colleges or universities, Whitman said.

“Proprietary schools, or for-profit trade schools, opened at an astonishing rate in response to the new government provision of tuition payments for GIs,” he said. “In one 18-month stint after the war, four proprietary schools a day opened in the U.S. Unfortunately, many of the new trade schools used deceptive advertising, made misleading promises to GIs about future careers and job placement, and engaged in a variety of fraudulent practices that bilked the government out of taxpayer dollars and wasted veterans’ educational benefits.”

Furthermore, Whitman said the cyclical nature of GI Bill abuse is just as striking. Just as is the case with the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the original GI Bill of Rights produced a series of investigative reports of predatory practices by proprietary schools, a Government Accountability Office investigation, multiple hearings and a major congressional report on industry abuses.

“Most recently, the Post-9/11 GI Bill was a marvelous legislative accomplishment, but its implementation has been partially marred by schools in the proprietary sector,” said Mettler. “The issue is not genuinely ideological; the question is simply who will stand up first and foremost for veterans. The American public, across party lines, supports aid to veterans. Lawmakers would do well to find common ground on this issue and to seek reform.”

Whitman said no school should treat veterans as cash cows. The Legion, like veterans themselves, should be vigilant about ensuring that veterans have high-quality educational options and consumer protections in place to make sure they don’t end up with a lot of student debt and no job, he said.

“Currently, one in four students using the Post-9/11 GI Bill attends the proprietary schools, many of which have poor records in serving students. If these problems are not addressed, they may eventually endanger the entire law,” Mettler said. “The Legion’s voice needs to be heard, both in Washington, D.C., and throughout the country, with members communicating their concerns to their senators and representatives. The record of the proprietary sector, marked by fraud and abuse of students, should be of utmost concern.”

Although veterans should not necessarily be worried about the future of the GI Bill, Whitman said they should be vigilant about ensuring schools don’t take advantage of them and provide a quality education. Whitman addressed an important change that the Legion could support is requiring a market-value test to make sure at least 15 percent of students at a school think well enough of its program, so much so that those students would be willing to pay for the school out of their own pocket.

“The Legion has played an important role in the development of every GI Bill, including the original 1944 GI Bill of Rights,” he said. “That’s a testament to the Legion’s recognition that education is the most surefire way for veterans to better their lives and advance their careers.”