Strategic Investments

11.13.135:45 AM ET

How the GI Bill Is Forming the Future of a New Middle Class

The post-9/11 GI Bill has given a million veterans the chance to pursue a college education. That’s more than a reward for service—it’s a strategic investment in our country’s future.

This Veterans Day marked more than five years since President Bush signed into law the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the most significant piece of education legislation for veterans since the original GI Bill of Rights following World War II. Just days ago the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced the millionth recipient of Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits. The new educational benefits granted to veterans represent more than a moral obligation, they are a strategic financial investment in our economic future that will benefit the entire country.

As directors of Student Veterans of America (SVA) and leaders in the veteran education space, we have seen the transformational nature of veteran education in general and the Post-9/11 GI Bill in particular. On many campuses, veterans have gone from a marginalized minority to a cohesive peer group. SVA, founded in early 2008, has grown from a handful of disparate groups to over 920 on-campus, peer-supported chapters in all 50 states and 2 countries abroad.

While Veterans Day offers us a chance to reflect on the successes of the past five years, the withdrawal from Afghanistan and plans for a general downsizing of the military point to greater challenges in the years to come. About one million veterans are expected to leave the military in the next 5 years, a two-fold increase over the past decade’s averages.

These veterans will re-enter a civilian society for whom war has, by and large, been on the back-burner. Even with troops fighting in Afghanistan, veteran service organizations are already seeing ‘donor fatigue’, an unfortunate phrase that also posits veterans as passive recipients of charity rather than as an investment in human capital. The end of combat operations will only increase the workload for veteran service organizations to realize this investment, and we cannot let slip our attention towards ensuring successful outcomes for our veterans.

The idea of veterans as victims, an extension of the casualty-driven media coverage of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been the prevailing narrative for too long. Five years of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, together with the VA’s announcement of the millionth student veteran beneficiary, highlights a more accurate narrative: veterans as strategic assets.

The first cohort of Post-9/11 GI Bill student veterans graduated only recently, but if the results of the original GI Bill of Rights are any indication we can look forward to an impressive generation of leaders to come. The post-WWII GI Bill educated roughly 10 million returning veterans, among them 14 Nobel Prize and 24 Pulitzer Prize winners, 3 presidents, a dozen senators, and 3 Supreme Court justices. That legislation transformed America and helped build the middle-class as we know it, resulting in an estimated seven-fold economic return-on-investment. Veterans are strategic assets, and when properly supported they can generate impressive returns.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill has been a transformational piece of legislation, making good on promises made to recruits and allowing veterans the same upward social mobility afforded to their WWII forebears. In fiscal terms, the new GI Bill’s investment in higher education for veterans can be expected to pay enormous dividends in an increasingly information driven global economy that requires a college degree as a minimum for entry. Any threats to veteran education, apart from breaking promises to those who served our country, would be a self-defeating and shortsighted endeavor.

One major difference between the WWII and Post-9/11 generations of veterans bears emphasizing:  WWII veterans returned, shortly after the cessation of hostilities, in a largely-cohesive generational mass. Post-9/11 veterans enlisted voluntarily, served with a fraction of their population, and transitioned back to civilian life as individuals. This is why the veteran service community in general, and SVA in particular, have focused on weaving disparate veterans back into mutually supporting communities that enable successful outcomes in education, career and life.

After the drawdown from Afghanistan is complete, the task of reintegrating our returning veterans will remain for years to come. The Post-9/11 GI Bill has been a keynote success, simultaneously allowing veterans to regain a sense of community on campus and bridging the civil-military divide by exposing civilian students to their veteran peers. As we look to a post-2014 veteran community, we must never forget the potential within the challenge of reintegrating veterans, and how our country stands to benefit in the process.