By William J. Byron
Now that Donald Trump is well into his presidency, he has to deliver on his promise to make America great again. A good place to start would be to take a page from the experience of America's Greatest Generation - the title of Tom Brokaw's remarkable book.
I hope the latest edition of Brokaw's work is making rounds among the domestic policy advisers in the Trump administration. One important thing it points out is how the "greatest investment in higher education that any society ever made" came in the form of the benefits delivered to veterans of World War II by the G.I. Bill. That "greatest investment" would turn out to be a self-financing program.
For every month spent in uniform during World War II, military service members earned two months of free higher education under the G.I. Bill of Rights. As a result of the college degrees they earned, those who took advantage of this benefit got higher-paying jobs than those who didn't participate. They also paid more in income taxes over the years, thus making the G.I. Bill, over time, a self-financing program.
The return to the U.S. Treasury has been enormous, while the federal outlay was relatively modest. This kind of equation should have more than a little appeal to an entrepreneurial president.
Following up on the success of the original G.I. Bill, the Trump administration should now consider attaching an educational benefit to civilian national service. It would be a way to reward those who participate in the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, Habitat for Humanity, Teach for America, Jesuit Volunteer Corps, or any other pre-approved organization that is dedicated to addressing unmet national needs like elder care, child care, environmental protection, cleaning up the cities, repairing urban infrastructure, and shoring up public elementary and secondary education.
The old G.I. Bill paid for tuition, fees, and books up to $500 a year. That was all it cost to go to college then. Unmarried participants received $75 a month for living expenses, while those who were married received $120. This made college affordable, with no need for student loans or part-time jobs. Millions of young people took advantage of the program, and most of them were first-generation college students.
Of course, the cost of college is a lot higher, and Congress would have to decide on an appropriate funding formula to reinvent this program. Perhaps a tuition voucher worth $1,000 at either a private or public institution of higher learning might be earned for each month of civilian service, with a limit of $20,000 placed on any participant's total eligibility.
These vouchers would not only benefit the students, but could also prove to be a life-saver for today's struggling independent colleges, just as the G.I. Bill came to the rescue of private colleges in 1946. Again, this type of assistance to the private sector of higher education looks like something our entrepreneurial president would want to do.
The G.I. Bill was officially known as the Serviceman's Readjustment Act of 1944. It was passed, in part, because Congress was concerned that the vast number of returning veterans would swell the ranks of America's unemployed to Great Depression proportions. Sending them to college was an immediate solution. It also proved to be a long-term answer to the challenge of strengthening America's productive capacity while connecting youthful energy to that productive effort.
Today's need to address widespread purposelessness among the young is evident. Alarming reports of drug and alcohol abuse and youth suicide, as well as disengagement and drift, call for a strategic response. Strategic planning begins with strategic thinking, which begins with the question:
What sets us apart?
The potential for greatness resident in our young people is surely part of the answer to that question. It's the same potential that returning veterans brought home in 1946, and is evidenced by the young men and women who participate in civilian national service today. Let's give this kind of low-risk, high-reward program the serious consideration it deserves.