IMAGINE TELLING the members of an entire generation they could receive a free college education at any school that accepted them -- Cal State, Harvard, the Sorbonne -- courtesy of Uncle Sam. Throw in a monthly stipend and textbooks. After graduation, there are government-backed home loans, no money down -- buy a house cheaper than renting. Throw in subsidized business loans, farm loans, job training, medical care and up to a year's worth of unemployment checks.
What insane politician would ever propose such a costly boondoggle, such outright social engineering? It would be the most enormous, far-reaching, life-changing government program in the history of the world.
And so it was. We know it today as the original GI Bill.
Today's unthinkable was yesterday's matter of course. FDR and Congress adopted the humbly named Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 with bipartisan fervor. The stated goal was simple: to help 16 million veterans and their families resume their lives after the scourge of World War II.
But this investment in the nation's future powered far more than a return to the status quo. It transformed the nation and the very nature of the American dream, opening up the colleges, raising suburbs out of bean fields, creating a new middle class and providing the medical, engineering and scientific prowess that conquered long-feared diseases, ushered in the Information Age and helped win the Cold War.
There was never anything like the GI Bill. There's nothing like it on the horizon. And that's a problem.
Today's veterans are getting shortchanged. Instead of a full ride to any college, the modern GI Bill's education support tops out at $36,000 for a four-year degree -- barely enough to cover the average state university and well short of UCLA's $19,500 annual tuition, room and board. Forget about the private colleges once covered by the GI Bill -- $36,000 would pay for only a year at many of them.
Reservists and National Guard troops in Iraq receive even less -- only 27% of the education benefits that regular troops receive. President Bush has opposed closing this gap, considering it a budget buster. Indeed, in a quest to minimize projected war costs, the administration used prewar statistics to craft its budget for another pillar of the GI Bill -- healthcare. Now veterans hospitals caring for the wounded of Iraq and Afghanistan are $3 billion short.
But this is not simply a story of slighted veterans, scandalous as that may be. This is a story of a United States no longer investing it its future. The GI Bill was an engine of opportunity for all of us. It powered U.S. prosperity after World War II, turning a nation of renters into a nation of homeowners, transforming college from an elite bastion into almost an entitlement and making a tiny middle class into America's leading demographic.
The "greatest generation" endured depression and war, but its members also ended up our most privileged generation, gifted with more government largesse than any group in history. More than 7 million veterans took advantage of the education benefits alone for college or trade schools. This proved a costly but sound investment: For every dollar paid out under the original GI Bill, there was a $7 return to the economy in terms of increased earnings, consumer spending and tax revenue, according to a 1988 congressional study.
Three presidents -- George H.W. Bush, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter -- dozens of congressmen, 14 Nobel Prize winners, giants of literature, Broadway and Hollywood and hundreds of thousands of teachers, doctors, nurses and businessmen got their starts with the help of the GI Bill. "Biggest piece of legislation the country ever passed," says former Sen. Bob Dole, a war hero and GI Bill beneficiary. "Maybe we need something like it again."
Which begs the question: What happened to the Washington that created something so magnificent? Why do we no longer expect -- or demand -- greatness from Americans' joint enterprise, our government? In the 1960s, before Watergate and Vietnam, most Americans believed that their government usually did the right thing. Now we've accepted Ronald Reagan's old formulation about the nine most dangerous words in the English language: "I'm from the government and I'm here to help." How ironic that a member of the GI Bill generation would sell his countrymen on that idea. But it's not a truism; it's self-fulfilling prophecy. We expect our government to fail, and it meets our expectations.
The original GI Bill was powerful because it touched a whole generation, and the ripple effects washed over the entire nation, not just veterans. Today's GI Bill reaches less than 1% of the population. It is no longer an engine for greatness, and Americans desperately need such an engine. We have always been the nation where the children can expect a better life than the parents; we no longer believe this is likely.