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In Print

Published in the September/October 2008 issue of Trusteeship magazine (Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges)
Column by President Kevin P. Reilly for Trusteeship magazine, September/October 2008
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The New GI Bill and Student Veterans

By Kevin P. Reilly, President, University of Wisconsin System


New federal legislation is making it easier for veterans to trade in their flak jackets for backpacks and books and to pursue postsecondary education.

As president of the University of Wisconsin System, where nearly 4,000 veterans enrolled last year and growing numbers are expected, I have seen the value these veterans bring to our campuses. They diversify our student bodies, enrich our educational process with their wide-ranging experiences, and, along the way, bolster our nation’s economy.

Wisconsin has led the nation in offering higher education benefits for its veterans. Since 2007, a state program has covered 100 percent of tuition and fees for state veterans who attend a UW System or Wisconsin Technical College System school.

Do these federal and state programs require major investment? Absolutely. By some estimates, the new federal bill could cost $62.8 billion over the next 11 years. Here in Wisconsin, the cost of state-mandated tuition remissions for veterans in both the UW and technical-college systems is expected to reach $50 million during our 2007-09 budget cycle. But offering veterans the chance to earn a college degree is a meaningful way to honor their personal sacrifice and service to this country.

It’s also an investment that will bring significant dividends for both veterans and our states.

Certainly, history suggests this can be a win-win proposition. The original GI Bill, passed after World War II, transformed millions of lives and, ultimately, our nation. By opening the doors to college for a whole generation of citizens, the landmark legislation contributed to the expansion of our middle class and the country’s burgeoning prosperity. Many credit the bill with democratizing higher education.

Times have changed significantly. The promise of education as incentive to enlist is no longer new. And millions fewer troops are now on active duty or in the reserves, making the potential impact of the current GI Bill accordingly less.  

But this new bill raises the ante by increasing significantly the amount of money veterans can receive, making higher education even more attractive, even more attainable. Why is that so important? Because we know we must attract more students to our campuses to avert a shortage of skilled workers in the increasingly knowledge-based world economy. Higher education executives from all 50 states recently declared that we need to produce one million more baccalaureate degree holders nationwide each year between now and 2025 to keep up with global competition. We cannot meet this goal without successfully educating a significant proportion of this new generation of veterans.

To ensure this legislation achieves its potential, however, veterans need more than financial assistance. A comprehensive support system must address the often-different needs and concerns of veterans.

Veterans are likely to be older than traditional college students. Many have family responsibilities or disabilities, seen or unseen, that must be accommodated. That could mean providing an amplifier for a veteran with hearing loss, or mental-health resources for veterans with post-traumatic stress. 

Traditional academic advising and support also may need to adapt to veterans who aren’t coming to college directly out of high school. Universities should consider alternative ways of awarding credit for prior learning, and new, shorter pathways to degree completion. The UW System has been working closely with the state’s technical colleges, for example, to develop efficient avenues for moving students between educational systems.

Another university partnership that should be encouraged is with the business community, to ensure veterans’ degrees and practical skills translate into real, family-supporting jobs.

These kinds of initiatives will benefit veterans, yes, but they also will serve the broader student populations we need to attract in years to come.

There is much work to be done before the new legislation is implemented in August 2009. Millions of veterans have already stepped up to answer the call to defend our nation. Now it’s our turn. It is morally right that we in higher education do this, and it is imperative for America’s economic future that we succeed.