This old soldier isn't aging well.

Since 1944, the Montgomery GI Bill has rewarded millions of soldiers for their service by helping defray the cost of education. But over the past 10 years, as the price of education has skyrocketed, benefits for reserve soldiers serving under the GI Bill haven't kept pace, eroding the program's effectiveness.

In 1985 the GI Bill paid reservists attending school full time $140 a month, for a maximum of 36 months. This year the GI Bill will pay them $272, nearly twice as much. But that increase hasn't come close to the rising costs of four-year private or public schools, which have both tripled over the same period.

"Honestly, just look at the cost of school. Two hundred seventy-two dollars was a lot better 10 years ago," says Bill Susling, assistant director for policy and program development at the Department of Veterans' Affairs, which administers the GI Bill program.

To become eligible for educational benefits, college-bound students make a six-year military commitment to serve as reserve members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Army National Guard or Air National Guard. In addition to a lengthy training period over the summer, when in school they're required to spend one weekend a month drilling with their unit.

Out of Step

But the GI Bill's benefits aren't enough anymore, and enrollment in the selected reserves part of the program has slipped, dropping to 81,807 in 2001 from 115,120 in 1992.

Over the past four years, a reservist under the GI Bill would have received a grand total of $9,369 in aid, which was barely enough to make a dent in the $63,583 average cumulative cost to attend a four-year private college. It's not even enough to cover the $13,850 it would have cost to attend a four-year public school for four years.

This disparity is widening because the monthly GI Bill payment for reservists is given an annual cost-of-living increase, not a cost-of-education increase. "Last year they got a cost-of-living increase of 1.5%," said Susling. "But the cost of school went up 7% to 8%. You're losing a little bit of ground every single time."

Big Bucks? Bigger Commitment

To make the most of the GI Bill, students must consider a much larger commitment. Though Congress hasn't raised the amount reservists receive, it increased the amount that active-duty soldiers receive, to encourage more of them to use the GI Bill, and passed the Veterans Education and Benefits Expansion Act of 2002 on Dec. 27, 2001.

Under the new law, payment for active-duty soldiers in a full-time education program will increase from $672 a month this year to $800 in 2002. By 2004, qualified soldiers will receive $985 a month.

In the four years from 2001 to 2004, the GI Bill will dole out more $30,000 per soldier, more than enough to cover the cost of attending a four-year public school, if the average tuition increases 5% annually.

"In 2002 and 2003 the GI Bill will come closer to covering the total cost of the average public education than it has since its inception," said Robert Clark, assistant director of accession policy with the Department of Defense.

But in order to qualify for these hefty payments, active-duty soldiers forgo attending college out of high school in lieu of enlisting in the military full time. After paying into the GI Bill system, giving $100 a month during their first year of service, active-duty soldiers must wait until they've served three years to become eligible for education benefits.

Cash for Cadets

For many who are interested in military service, their best option may be to avoid the GI Bill and join the Reserve Officers' Training Corps, better known as ROTC. The ROTC program, designed to attract high-caliber candidates into the military's officer ranks, pays hefty scholarships and stipends to qualified students.

"If someone was planning to use the GI Bill, they might want to investigate other avenues before considering it. For example, a ROTC scholarship can easily cover four years of college if you go to a

smaller college," said Kalman Chany, author of

How to Pay for College Without Going Broke

.

The ROTC educational benefit package is a lucrative one. In addition to providing money for tuition, the program also doles out money for school supplies and even provides a stipend to help with living costs. On average, ROTC cadets received $9,738 in tuition assistance, $600 for books and a $3,250 stipend in 2001. All told, that comes to $13,588 annually.

"Over four years, you can get upwards of $80,000 to pay tuition," said Paul Kotakis, a ROTC spokesperson. "And our scholarships are completely merit-based. We don't ask for tax forms. They're based on academic performance and leadership potential."

To qualify for an ROTC scholarship, potential cadets must have a minimum grade point average of 2.5 on a 4-point scale, SAT score of 920 and composite ACT score of 19.

Cadets must also take special classes, stay in good physical shape and serve eight years in the military after college. Kotakis said most officers spend four years in active duty and four years of reserve duty.

While eight years seems like a long time, Kotakis was quick to point out that cadets are trading a military commitment for a financial one. "The reality is, ROTC represents an opportunity to have a very expensive financial obligation not become a factor once they graduate," he said.

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