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Landmark Law Marks 60 Years of Helping U.S. Military Veterans Go to College

When U.S. soldiers returned from World War II, they re-entered American society with the help of the U.S. Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944. Better known as the G.I. Bill, the landmark law provided wide ranging benefits for military veterans -- especially the chance to get a college education.

As the Readjustment Act marks its 60th anniversary this year, veterans are continuing to take advantage of these benefits. Former U.S. Marine Sean-Michael Green has written a new guidebook to help them make the most of the G.I. Bill. In Marching To College, the author says fewer than 340,000 veterans used their benefits to pay for college in 2002...but millions were eligible.

Mr. Green says many veterans fear they are not capable of doing college level work. But that may not be true.

"A lot can change after serving in the military," he says. "A person comes out with not just discipline, but with a better perspective. The idea of sitting in a classroom and learning is one that really appeals to some people after serving in the military."

Sean-Michael Green says he was a terrible student in high school, and he has the report cards to prove it. He had no interest in going to college after he graduated, so he joined the Marine Corps instead. After leaving active duty, he decided to give school another try, enrolling in a two-year community college. To his surprise, he did well, so he went on to get a bachelor's degree from the University of Pittsburgh, a master's at the University of Pennsylvania, and complete law school at Cornell.

He attributes all his belated academic success to his military experience...and what he calls its system of rewards and punishments. "If I hadn't had that experience in the military, if I'd never learned when to act and when to take charge of the situation, I never would have been the student I am today," he says.

Sean-Michael Green says today's soldiers are different than those of 60 years ago. "There used to be a choice that high school graduates would make," he says. "They would decide either to go to college or to go into the military. The way that recruiting works now, that choice is no longer there. You go into the military in order to go to college. And there are plenty of benefits and money set aside that allow somebody who goes into the military to go to college at a lower cost than a person who just goes the traditional route straight from high school into college."

Mr. Green says the G.I. Bill of 1944 made higher education in America more democratic. In his new book, he gives advice to veterans on everything from applying to college to getting financial aid to improving study skills.

The book also argues that the purpose of the G.I. Bill has changed over six decades. In the beginning, Mr. Green says, "the biggest factor was to reward people for serving in the military, and to bring the technical knowledge of the American work force up to speed during a time of war, when a lot of professionals were going off to fight and a lot were being killed."

Now, he says, the focus is on promoting the benefits of the G.I. Bill to help recruit soldiers. The law allows members of the armed forces to pay a portion of their earnings into a fund for their first twelve months of service. If they enroll in college full-time after leaving the military, they receive a monthly stipend for up to three years. They can also get tuition assistance from the military to attend college while on active duty. It's even possible to earn academic credits for military schools and experience, then take a series of qualifying exams to get a degree.

Donald Koruncio did just that while serving in the U.S. Navy. He says he got a bachelor's degree in history in less than two years. "I realized that once I retired from the navy, all this experience was good, but what would help me in the civilian world was having a degree. And since I retired, three jobs I have held required having a bachelor's degree."

Mr. Koruncio now works as a college office guidance counselor at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida. His goal is to help other service men and women get more education. "The sky's the limit now," he says, "because the services do pay tuition assistance and they have the tests to supplement it."

Sean Michael Green contends that military veterans go into college with a more mature outlook, which can also be helpful to their fellow classmates. With a new generation of service men and women returning home from Iraq, he says the G-I Bill will -- after 60 years -- will keep reaping rewards for veterans, the U.S. military and colleges alike.

"Marching to College" was published by the Princeton Review, 1745 Broadway, New York, New York 10019.