Do too many qualify for GI Bill transfers?

By Tom Philpott

It’s easy to imagine awkward moments on college campuses these days as veterans of the Iraq/Afghanistan era mix with another category of student also using generous education benefits under the new GI Bill.

“What’s your service and where did you serve?”

“I didn’t. My dad (mom) did.”

More than 38,000 military children and spouses have gone to college this past year on benefits transferred to them from military careerists and recent retirees. And that flow has just begun.

Through early September, the services approved requests from 145,000 service members to transfer GI Bill benefits to 331,000 children and spouses. Congressional auditors two years ago estimated the transferability feature alone would add $10 billion to the program’s costs over the first decade.

Benefits can be transferred to a spouse if the member has served at least six years and commits to four more. Transfer to children, in return for that extra time, is allowed after 10 years’ service.

But GI Bill transfers are in overdrive right now because Defense department officials made almost the entire career force eligible, and eliminated or reduced that extra service obligation for those nearing retirement.

As a result, awkward moments over transferability are occurring on Capitol Hill, too. In July, at a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing, Chairman Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, said the Department of Defense “has too broadly extended this benefit.”

Akaka said Congress believed transferability would be used selectively, to retain members with critical skills, and not to reward all careerists.

Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., chief architect of the new GI Bill, recalled how he hesitated to accept transferability when pushed by the Bush administration in final negotiations.

“My personal focus was on the citizen soldier who spends a tour and then returns to civilian life. They are the ones who were to benefit, as they did from the original GI bill, the World War II GI Bill. To help these people get on with the rest of their lives has been my main focus,” Webb said.

“I would like to see the numbers on transferability,” he said. “I’m not saying I’m opposed but I would be very curious to see the numbers.”

And on his visits to the Pentagon, Webb added, “I’d like to see senior leaders over there spend more time talking about how great this benefit is for the people who leave the military. Yet every time I come over they want to talk to me about transferability … I remind them they ought to be just as happy about those people who have gotten out” after fewer than six years.

The first bill Webb introduced as a new senator in 2007 was a GI Bill to rival the post-World War II benefit, paying the full cost of college for a new generation of warriors, at least at state-run schools. When his idea gained steam in early 2008, Republican leaders countered with a more modest plan to beef up the Montgomery GI Bill. Defense leaders preferred this, fearing Webb’s more generous plan would put force readiness at risk, enticing many to leave for college after a single hitch or in mid-career.

Then-Sen. John Warner, R-Va., proposed a compromise, a transferability test to allow members to give half of their new GI Bill benefit to family members. Bush had endorsed transferability in his 2008 State of the Union address, so it snowballed into a very robust feature of Webb’s bill.

Eligibility would depend on how Defense officials wrote the implementing regulation. What they produced was far more inclusive than many observers had expected. Even some veterans’ service organizations were surprised at how expansive they made GI Bill transferability.

Akaka thought he had a partial solution in May when he introduced a comprehensive bill to reform the benefit. He tucked in a provision to shift the cost of transferability from the VA budget to Defense, so officials there would tighten eligibility or suffer the fiscal consequences. By August, Akaka had pulled that provision at the request of Defense officials.

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