President Barack Obama has hailed the launch of a federal program that pays college tuition for U.S. veterans who have served in the armed forces since the September 11 terrorist attacks of 2001. The initiative updates and revamps a program that began during the World War II.
President Obama says those who have fought for the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan deserve opportunities to continue to contribute to the nation as productive, educated civilians, just as past generations of American warriors have done.
"The freedom and prosperity that we enjoy would not exist without the service of generations of Americans who were willing to bear the heaviest and most dangerous burden," he said. "But we also know this: the contributions that our servicemen and women can make to this nation do not end when they take off that uniform. We owe a debt to all who serve, and when we repay that debt to those bravest Americans among us, then we are investing in our future."
The president was speaking at George Mason University in Virginia, accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.
The new GI bill went into effect at the start of the month. It pays tuition, living expenses and other costs at U.S. public universities and colleges for those with a minimum of 90 days of active duty service. The percentage of costs paid depends on the length of active duty. Funds can also be applied to tuition at private universities, which typically charge more than state-run institutions. Benefits can be accessed for 15 years, and may be transferred to veterans' family members. Total cost of the bill has been estimated at $75 billion.
Noting that former presidents, Supreme Court justices, and Nobel Prize winners made use of previous GI benefits, President Obama says the new funds will be well-spent.
"The veterans who are here today, like the young post-9/11 veterans around the country, can lead the way to a lasting economic recovery and become the glue that holds our communities together," said Mr. Obama. "They, too, can become the backbone of a growing American middle class."
When then President Franklin Roosevelt signed the first GI bill into law in 1944, the United States was battling both Nazi Germany and Japan. Nearly eight million World War II veterans secured a college education through the program, which economic historians say helped lay the foundation for the expansion of America's middle class in the 1950s.
Tuition assistance for veterans continued in subsequent decades, but the program failed to keep up with rising tuition costs and did not address living expenses.
The post-9/11 GI Bill passed Congress last year despite opposition from the former Bush administration. Those opposed to the measure argued it would make going to college more attractive, and would adversely affect retention rates for U.S. service members in a time of war.