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I Used the GI Bill, Then Fought for It to Be “Forever”

The following is a guest post by Will Hubbard, Vice President of Government Affairs, Student Veterans of America.

Will Hubbard in uniform. Photo courtesy of Will Hubbard.

As I sit here in Kabul City, Afghanistan, deployed as a member of the Marine Corps Reserve, I’m reminded of the journey that has taken me here, including my own experience of graduating from American University using the GI Bill. Like many students who used the GI Bill over the storied 75-year history of one of our nation’s most successful programs, the GI Bill was a tool that enabled my own success in post-secondary education.

In 2006, we were deep in a war that started five years before, after being attacked on September 11th, 2001. Stunned and confused, I saw our country—it appeared—ablaze. As lawmakers and politicians made decisions on the direction of our military, I wondered, “What do they know of war?” This question drove me to find out for myself; not before long, I was standing on yellow footprints aboard the Marine Corps Recruit Depot with a Drill Instructor in my ear every moment of every day, it seemed.

In 2008, I began my studies in International Relations at American, and came together with a few friends to start a new club on campus, “AU Vets.” As higher education once struggled to accommodate the influx of post-service students in 1944 and thereafter, in 2008 it faced many similar struggles once again, and AU Vets was our answer on our campus. The Post-9/11 GI Bill, or “New GI Bill” as it was called at the time, started to draw student veterans to classrooms and quads in increasing droves across the country.

Until the GI Bill, higher education was a largely exclusive opportunity, available primarily to elite men from prominent and homogenous families. The GI Bill changed all of that, throwing open the doors of universities and colleges everywhere. My own grandfather used his GI Bill to earn an electrical engineering degree from Purdue University after serving in the Battle of the Bulge.

Not only did student veterans pave the way for Americans everywhere, but they also helped to establish rigorous student consumer protections in response to many “fly-by-night schools” looking to take advantage of this generous benefit; notably, this is where the “85-15 rule” came from, a quality control stipulating that at least 15% of the school’s revenue had to come from private tuition dollars versus government funding.

As AU Vets started to grow, our national organization, Student Veterans of America (SVA) began to pick up steam as well. In just 10 years, SVA grew from the original 20 chapters in 2008 to more than 1,500 chapters nationwide, making it the largest chapter-based student organization in the country. For me, this spoke to the importance of student veterans on campus, just like the role student veterans once played in the democratization of higher education many years before.

Will Hubbard at graduation. Photo courtesy of Will Hubbard.

With two-thirds of the million-plus student veterans in school being first-generation post-secondary students, there have been many hurdles.[1] None of these hurdles have held student veterans back, now boasting one of the highest graduation rates for any single student population in all of higher education.[2] Based on the data and research, a community of organizations came together in 2016 to discuss the long-term assurance of the GI Bill for generations to come. This small group of dedicated organizations known as “The Tiger Team” built a coalition of more than 60+ supporting organizations that eventually achieved the unanimous passage of H.R. 3218, widely known as the Forever GI Bill.

My colleague, Lauren Augustine, and I had the privilege of being leaders in the effort to pass that historic legislation—I largely credit the success of the $3.45 billion bill to her brilliant strategy and consensus-building. The Forever GI Bill did something that no GI Bill had previously considered: it functionally made the GI Bill permanent. By removing the 15-year time limit to use the benefit, it made the GI Bill a lifetime benefit that would ensure all future generations had access to education. This fundamentally changed the nature of the GI Bill, making it no longer a cost of war, but more powerfully a right of service.

Thanks to the unyielding dedication of Hill staffers like Jon Clark, Kelsey Baron, and dozens of others, the Tiger Team’s months of walking the halls of congress resulted in a resounding success. In addition to the “forever” stipulation of the bill, nearly 30 other provisions overhauled the GI Bill in support of Purple Heart Recipients, families of the fallen, National Guard and Reserve members, and so many others who bravely served our nation. What began in 1944 as a simple concept that servicemembers should get a shot at earning an education, was finally cemented into the America fabric of higher education forever.

[1] N. Durdella and Y. Kim, “Understanding patterns of college outcomes among student veterans,” J. of Stud. in Educ., vol. 2, no. 2, pp. 109-128, 2012.

[2] Cate, C.A., Lyon, J.S., Schmeling, J., & Bogue, B.Y. (2017). National Veteran Education Success Tracker: A Report on the Academic Success of Student Veterans Using the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Student Veterans of America, Washington, D.C.

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