The GI Bill covered all of Carl Edgerly's college expenses in the mid-1970s. His son, however, expects that even with the maximum $1,075 in monthly GI Bill benefits, he will be saddled with $50,000 in student loans when he graduates from George Mason University.
"The total amount of the GI Bill comes nowhere close to what I actually need for college," said Marc Edgerly, 26, who is in his second year at the suburban Washington school. "After five years of college, it is not going to work."
As the Edgerlys prove, it's not your father's GI Bill anymore.
The federal program that once covered nearly the entire cost of a veteran's college expenses continues to fall further behind the soaring price of higher education.
Despite several attempts by Congress to boost benefits in past decades, the gap has grown so large that many veterans are forced to take out sizable student loans.
The maximum GI Bill amount a currently enrolled veteran who served on active duty can qualify for during a college career is roughly $38,700. But for many students, that is not nearly enough to pay for tuition, room, board and books. And the GI Bill covers only four years of school, leaving veterans on their own if they take longer to graduate.
The average cost of one year's tuition, room and board at four-year public institutions in 2006-07 was $12,796, according to the College Board. For private schools, the one-year cost was $30,367. Tuition and fees at all schools have risen 35 percent in the past five years, while the highest GI Bill monthly payout has increased only 20 percent since 2002.
Big student loans are not uncommon among college students in general; the average graduate now leaves school with $19,000 in loans.
Congress has boosted the GI benefit several times since its inception - the last a $9 billion, 10-year increase passed in 2001 that even then was criticized as too small to keep up with soaring costs.
Some lawmakers want to try again. Legislation in the House and Senate would make National Guard and Reserve troops, who are relied on heavily in Iraq and Afghanistan, eligible for the same GI Bill payments as active-duty personnel. Currently, Guard members and reservists receive a much lower educational benefit.
A bill by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., a former Marine and Navy secretary, would pay the entire tuition, room and board of veterans and provide them with a monthly stipend of $1,000. The expanded benefit would be available to all members of the military who served after Sept. 11, 2001. A Webb spokeswoman said there is no estimate yet of how much the expanded benefit would cost.
Webb touted the bill Wednesday in the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, saying it would help boost recruiting, ease the transition of returning soldiers and raise the quality of life for veterans. The legislation is backed by several veterans groups, such as the American Legion.
The Department of Veterans Affairs, which administers the program, distributed $2.76 billion in education aid to 498,123 people last year.
While that amount is substantial, it falls short of original program's scope.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the GI Bill, officially called the Servicemen's Readjustment Act, in 1944, largely to keep millions of demobilized World War II soldiers from flooding the job market. By 1956, 7.8 million servicemen had used the benefit for either college or vocational training.
Veterans initially received about $500 per year, enough to pay for tuition, room and books at most colleges, according to Keith Olson, a University of Maryland professor who wrote a book on the GI Bill. But the purchasing power of the GI Bill benefits has eroded over the years.
To enroll, troops must buy in to the program. Their pay is reduced by $1,200 during the first year of service, and then they must serve their full enlistment period. Those who serve three years or more are eligible for the full benefit of $1,075 per month. Some may qualify for additional money provided by each military branch, known as a GI Bill "kicker." Despite its original largesse, some veterans aren't sure the GI Bill should pay for the entire cost of their education. Carl Edgerly, 55, served for three years in the Army, including a year in Vietnam. Now an accountant for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, he is also a lieutenant colonel in the National Guard scheduled for a tour in Iraq. Edgerly worked full time while he was on the GI Bill, and received $374 per month in GI Bill benefits. He attended Bismarck Junior College and then University of Mary College, both in Bismarck, N.D. Despite the costs his son faces, Edgerly said he believes the program is meant to give a soldier a "head start" rather than a free ride in college. His son agrees - somewhat. Marc Edgerly enlisted in a burst of patriotism following Sept. 11, 2001, and spent four years in the Army's Old Guard, serving on honor guards at Arlington National Cemetery. Now a Russian and engineering major at George Mason, Edgerly also works part-time as security guard at $12.50 per hour. His yearly tuition bill is about $7,000. Edgerly and his fiancee pay around $1,200 monthly for a small apartment near campus in the high-rent Washington suburb. He expects to find a well-paying job as an engineer after he graduates, which should help to repay his loans. And he has a big incentive to stay in school. "My fiancee says she won't marry me if I don't get a college degree," he said.