GI Bill spirit revived to woo Iraq vets

June 16, 2006

In this mid-term election year, politicians are currying favour by giving US soldiers from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars free tuition. Jon Marcus reports

Sixty years after the GI Bill provided free tuition to Second World War veterans, US universities have been persuaded to dust off the idea and welcome veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq - and their surviving relatives.

Politicians across America are vying to make free or reduced tuition available in this election year as a way of showing their support for veterans. But there are concerns at some universities about how this will be paid for.

The programmes vary widely in their generosity between states.

Iowa, for example, will provide up to $5,500 (£3,000) a year towards public university tuition fees for children of military personnel who have died since September 11, 2001.

Spouses of fallen soldiers will also be eligible for free or reduced fees in about a dozen states.

Wisconsin will pay full public university fees for any of its 464,000 military veterans of any period. Until now, Wisconsin has paid half of veterans' fees.

So far the cost of the programmes is largely being met by promises. When the university tuition assistance fund in Virginia nearly ran out of money this year, the governor had to supplement it with a top-up from an emergency contingency fund.

In Wisconsin, university officials have warned that the state's liberal tuition policy will cost an estimated $9 million a year.

But John Scocos, affairs secretary in the Wisconsin Department of Veterans, who calls the plan the "Wisconsin GI Bill" after its national predecessor of the 1940s, said: "I can't think of a bigger way to honour our fallen veterans than by replicating perhaps the greatest legislation in this country's history at the state level."

Minnesota has had a law since 1943 that gives war orphans free tuition, plus cash stipends for books and other expenses, but it had been largely forgotten until veterans' groups brought it to the attention of the state's legislature this year.

"No one can deny that these soldiers are the ultimate civil servants, making the ultimate sacrifice, and therefore deserve our respect, appreciation and unwavering support," said Minnesota state Representative Lloyd Cybart, an Air Force veteran who compelled the University of Minnesota to revive the policy.

Meanwhile, Mississippi State University will start providing educational benefits to soldiers even before they return to civilian life.

The university has launched a distance-learning programme that allows the state's National Guard members to study for a masters degree in business administration at reduced cost, communicating with professors and submitting assignments online.

Some 2.3 million Second World War veterans attended colleges and universities in the seven years following the signing of the GI Bill by President Roosevelt.

The federal government subsidised tuition, fees, books and educational materials for veterans and contributed to living expenses.

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