Since President Roosevelt signed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, more commonly known as the GI Bill, into law in 1944, it has transformed the post-service lives of millions of our nation’s veterans and their families, providing over $400 billion in education benefits to 25 million beneficiaries while generating unprecedented economic mobility for our nation’s military families.
This year our country will prepare for Veterans Day in the wake of a national drawdown from our longest war. As we honor the service and sacrifice of our nation’s military families, it’s also an opportunity to reflect on the GI Bill as one of the most consequential veteran benefits in our nation’s history.
And as we attempt to help our country, especially women and young people, enter the labor force or return to work after a global pandemic, it’s an even better time to recognize an often unspoken truth: GI Bill benefits provide veterans with invaluable financial relief and economic mobility, regardless of who in their family uses them.
When the Post 9/11 GI Bill was signed into law by President George W Bush in 2008, it expanded the bill’s educational stipend by allowing veterans to transfer their benefits to a spouse or child(ren). Since then, military families have taken advantage of transferability in increasing numbers. In 2016, spouses and children made up 17 percent of overall GI Bill benefits usage. In 2020, dependents, or family members, made up 20 percent of the overall usage.
The ability to allow family members to use the bill toward a degree maximizes its impact for military families, generating shared value and providing financial relief for those who served. Yet initially, GI Bill transferability wasn’t universally supported by veterans’ advocates, who implied that family members hadn’t earned the GI Bill because they “didn’t serve their country.”
However, as any military spouse or military child will tell you — it is the entire family that serves. And the longer a family serves, the more financial sacrifice they endure and the more valuable GI Bill benefits become to them.
Families who serve for 20 years (the veteran retiring from service) often do not have money saved up for college. Over 50 percent of military families are single-earners according to a 2016 study by Blue Star Families and the Sorensen Institute. They leave the service with lower savings because in many cases, the spouse has put off or interrupted their school or career because of the frequent interstate moves required by military service. Access to GI Bill benefits for military spouses is an excellent way of thanking these unseen heroes for their sacrifice and service while providing upward mobility for the family.
For children of servicemembers, frequent moves — an average of eight by the time they graduate high school — prevent them from developing key relationships with teachers and school administrators who could act as champions for scholarships and college admissions. Many are unable to achieve leadership roles and awards that their abilities warrant, creating a disadvantage for them in relation to children who have matriculated within the same school system for their entire primary education.
Perennial ‘new kids’, they are not often picked to be captains of their teams or singled out for accomplishments, simply because people do not know them as well. Add to this the difficulties of making new friends every couple of years and the stress of deployments and separations from their servicemember and it is hard to deny that these kids also serve their country.
For instance — Laura’s son just started at a major public university using the GI Bill. He went through three of his father’s deployments and five military moves before he was in third grade. Although Laura was an attorney who took and passed four bar exams within six years to keep up with their interstate travels, her career was intermittent for much of the family’s time in the military. Without the GI Bill, they would be challenged to pay for their children’s college.
Vivian, a Navy veteran, utilized her own GI Bill, for her masters degree and a portion of her Ph.D. Vivian’s husband transferred his GI Bill benefits to their two sons. Their oldest, a senior, went through four of his father’s deployments and moved between states during his sophomore year in high school as his father retired from 20 years of service in the Navy. The recent passage of the Choice Act, which extends in-state tuition at out of state schools for qualifying GI Bill users, puts schools that would have otherwise been out of reach into scope for Vivian’s family.
The use of GI Bill benefits by a veteran versus a family member is a distinction without a difference. In the end, the benefits of the GI Bill inure to the servicemember. Without it, the veteran and his/her family will ultimately pay for the family member’s education, or possibly take on expensive loans to cover the costs, expanding the wealth gap between them and their professional peers.
This Veterans Day, we share our personal experiences as military family members in part to thank the colleges and organizations who are leaning in to meet our military families’ needs and ensuring those who give so much in service to others have advocates and ambassadors within the higher education system. There is no better way to thank a military family for their service than ensuring their successful transition and continued contribution to our country.
Vivian and Laura are two of the co-founders of Blue Star Families and longtime advocates for the military community.