Military Money for College: Mainly a fantasy

57% of Military Personnel Who Signed Up Have Received Nothing
Average Net Payout to Veterans: Less than $2200

This article is based on research done by Peacework Co-Editor Sam Diener and intern Jamie Munro.


Airman cleaning steps with a toothbrush.
Photo: USAF, Stacey Jeanpaul


Only 1 in 20 eligible for advertised education
The advertisements blare: Join the military and receive $70,000 for college! This bonus program, known as the Montgomery GI Bill - Army/Navy College Fund, is in reality, according to an August 27, 2004 press release from the US Army Recruiting Command, only available to those who qualify with high test scores, sign up for what the military deems "critical" military specialties (critical usually means hardest to fill and least desirable), and enlist for at least six years of active military duty. Approximately 95% of those who enter the military are not eligible for this maximum amount.

In fact, 57% of the veterans who signed up for the Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB) have never seen a penny in college assistance, and the average net payout to veterans has been only $2151. Primarily, the low average net is the result of the many military personnel who the Department of Defense (DoD) declares ineligible, and of the challenges faced by veterans trying to access the promised money even if they are eligible.

To be eligible for the MGIB, members of the military have to stay in for at least three years of active duty (except for a select few who qualify for a two-year active duty stint), and need to receive an honorable discharge. All enlisted military personnel are required to have $100 deducted from their salary for the first 12 months they are in the military to help pay for the program, unless they sign special forms opting out. This "deposit" is non-refundable. If the member of the military is later ruled ineligible (see below), they lose the $1200. The only circumstance in which the $1200 is refunded is if the enlistee dies on active duty. In that event, their next of kin will receive a refund.

According to George Richon, of the Strategy Development Team at the Veterans Administration (VA), since the program began, there have been 3,853,168 individuals who have enrolled in the Montgomery GI Bill Active Duty program. Approximately 1.5 million of these individuals are still on active duty, meaning there are approximately 2.35 million veterans who paid into the program. Yet only 1,650,825 were eligible for benefits at the time of their discharge, meaning that over 29% of all those who paid into the program, or approximately 700,000 veterans, were discharged early or with a less than honorable discharge. These veterans have thus lost both their $1200 payroll deduction and any hope of benefits at all.

Less than 50% who paid into program get any benefits
Of those who were eligible, 1,071,963 have received some money through the program. The VA uses this figure to claim that 65% of eligible veterans receive MGIB money. However, a more accurate measure of long-term utilization rates shows that, of those who signed up for the military and began paying in to the program, only 43% have received anything. In other words, more than 57% have, to date, received nothing (approximately 1.35 million out of 2.35 million).

Furthermore, veterans who serve their full active duty term and receive an honorable discharge must use the money within 10 years of discharge from active duty. According to the VA, 29% of those who at one time were eligible but who enlisted in the MGIB between 1985 and 1994 (and who are therefore no longer eligible for the program) received no money at all, and they will never be able to get anything.

Effective October 1, 2004, the maximum amount a GI can receive, unless they are eligible for the College Fund, is $9036 a year for four years, still less than the in-state tuition room and board at many state universities, and only a fraction of the cost of a private college. If a person attends a two-year community college, the maximum amount per year restriction still applies, meaning that the maximum benefit they can receive is half that of a person attending a four-year program. For the fiscal year ending September 30, 2004, the VA paid approximately $1.8 billion to 332,031 veterans, for an average of just over $5540 each.

As of September 30, 2004, Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke of the DoD reports that in the life of the program, the military has garnished $3,781,497,312 from enlistees in the form of the non-refundable payroll deductions mentioned above. George Richon of the VA says they have paid out, "approximately $12.9 billion in benefits" under the MGIB Active Duty Program during the same time period.

Thus, according to data released by the VA and the DoD, the average net payout to the 3.85 million enlistees who have enrolled in the Montgomery GI Bill program has been only $2151 ($12.9 billion divided by 3.85 million enlistees minus the $1200 payroll deduction from each person), or less than $538 per year at a four year college. A person with a Massachusetts minimum wage job paying $6.75 an hour would earn, pre-taxes, $538 in just two weeks of full-time work.

Ed payouts: Ed Dept outspends military 140-1
Over the course of 20 years, the Pentagon has paid, in net college benefits, a total of approximately $9.1 billion, or an average of less than $466 million per year. By contrast, the civilian US Department of Education spent $71.6 billion to support undergraduate and graduate study in 2003 alone, including: $49.1 billion in guaranteed loans, $15.8 billion in grants, $5.4 billion in education tax credits, and $1.2 billion in work-study assistance.

Even if one only considered the grants, what the Pentagon spends on college assistance each year is less than 2.9% of civilian federal grant aid for college. In 1999, according to the US Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, the average Federal Pell Grant, which over 30% of undergraduates (over 5 million students, including over 72% of students in the lowest quartile of income) receive, totaled $2500 per year. This figure does not include grants and scholarships from non-federal sources, including colleges themselves, federal work-study assistance, or federal guaranteed student loans. Federal civilian assistance for college is still not enough when compared with the level of need, but it doesn't cost $1200 to sign up for it, one is not liable to put in four years or more of overtime work only to be declared ineligible at the end of the term, and one does not have to risk one's life or promise to kill on command to qualify.

Vets get same student aid as if not a vet¡!
Even for veterans who qualify for the MGIB, there is still one more surprising twist. When a veteran fills out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form to determine how much they can pay for college, MGIB money is counted as an asset, and subtracted from whatever aid package they would have received if they weren't getting MGIB money. Therefore, the expected out-of-pocket financial contribution from a veteran will be exactly the same as if they never entered the military, unless they have become additionally impoverished by the military's low wages and therefore now have greater need. It's true that the ratio of grants to loans will generally be higher for a MGIB recipient, but the total financial aid package will be no greater than for a non-veteran of equal financial status.

So, why the discrepancy between the advertisements and the reality of the GI Bill? The Army itself admits that the primary purpose of the MGIB is to enlist recruits, not to help veterans. In the Army Recruiting Command's School Recruiting Program Handbook (USAREC Pamphlet 350-13, section 7.2, as first reported by Draft NOtices) the Army baldly explains the program's intent: "Purpose: a. To encourage college-capable individuals to defer their college until they have served in the Army. b. To fill the various Army skills with capable individuals. c. To demonstrate to the education community that the Army is concerned with assisting Soldiers by providing financial assistance for postsecondary education."

After repeated requests, the Veterans Administration and the Department of Defense insisted that they do not even track what percentage of MGIB enlistees actually attain two-year or four-year degrees. When asked to comment on whether this failure justifies an interpretation that neither the DoD nor the VA cares about the veterans themselves and whether or not they are benefiting from the program, George Richon replied, "The VA is interested in that information. I don't agree with your interpretation that no one cares, just that there are other measures that look at the success of the educational assistance programs." He claims the VA is investigating ways of compiling this information.

Ed aid is 1/8 what military spends on recruiting
According to the Government Accontability Office (GAO), the military recruiting budget in fiscal year 2003 is "approaching $4 billion." (See <www.gao.gov/new.items/d031005.pdf>). The average net amount the military has spent on the MGIB per year is less than one eighth of what the military spends on recruitment. According to this same GAO report, the military advertising budget nearly doubled between 1998 and 2003, rising to $592 million.

Despite the media barrage, parents, teachers, and coaches (people who military recruiters call "centers of influence" or "influencers"), are becoming increasingly skeptical of the military's message. Major General Michael Rochelle, the Commander of US Army Recruiting, at a press conference on May 20, 2005, admitted, "I believe that shortly after September the 11th [2001], the propensity for influencers was measured at about the 22 percent who would say, yes, I would recommend military service to a young man or woman of recruitment age. And the last data point I saw, it's down to -- I think it's 14 percent <http://www.defenselink.mil/transcripts/2005/tr20050520-2881.html>." Parents and youth are beginning to heed the message of peace activists and Veterans for Peace groups: the military's focus is warfighting, not educating.

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