Supporting Veterans and the GI Bill: A conversation with the Cyrus family, Dr. Eddie R. Cole, and Carrie WoffordNov. 11, 2020
Since 1636, our country has offered some form of benefits for veterans. How well those benefits work for Black veterans depends on whom you ask, and when.
In this 24th installment of the Lumina Foundation podcast, I spoke to two veterans, a historian, and the head of a veterans’ advocacy organization to get their take.
Father and son Joe and Joey Cyrus, the veterans, had good news: Both used the G.I. Bill to earn college degrees. After serving in the Army from 1977-97, Joe retired from his days as a paratrooper, drill instructor, and staff sergeant. He went on to Central Washington University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in safety and health management. Through what was known as the Vocational Rehabilitation program, he had four years of college, books, and parking paid for. He also received a monthly stipend.
Joey, after finishing his undergraduate degree in business administration, found it tough to get a job during a down economy. He joined the Air Force and served for seven years, picking up IT skills. After leaving the service, he used his G.I. Bill benefits to get a master’s in cybersecurity.
Both men told me they are happy with their decision—and their benefits.
“Utilize the benefits,” Joey Cyrus advised. “A lot of people for some reason don’t go back to school or get certifications. We did that time and paid our debt, and paid into the program, so we earned these benefits.”
That’s the way benefits are supposed to work. But they didn’t always. Dr. Eddie R. Cole, associate professor at UCLA and a historian of higher education, said the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the G.I. Bill, didn’t explicitly exclude Black veterans, but that’s often what happened. Some 1.2 million Black veterans were blocked from receiving full benefits.
While the bill offered veterans access to home loans, most Black veterans found themselves discriminated against. Many couldn’t get a loan, and those who did were often shut out of buying in certain neighborhoods. (Historian Ira Katznelson has written that in New York and New Jersey after World War II, fewer than 100 of the 67,000 mortgages insured by the G.I. Bill supported home purchases by people of color.) College and university presidents of the era also contributed to housing segregation through federal lobbying efforts and buying up nearby properties under the guise of “urban renewal” and made them too expensive for the Black families who lived there. This effort—to displace entire Black neighborhoods close to college campuses—compounded existing discriminatory practices including exclusion in college admissions, using white-only laboratories and training equipment, and locking Black Americans out of the job market.
Cole, author of the new book “The Campus Color Line: College Presidents and the Struggle for Black Freedom,” said while the American Dream was bubbling up after World War II, “housing segregation and employment and education become intertwined.” Where you live determines access to education, job opportunities and, ultimately, your income.
“You can have federal policy on paper that doesn’t exclude a particular race, but when it comes down to implementation, the racism is still embedded within it,” he said.
Seventy-six years later, one of the big issues facing Black veterans is the degree to which they are targeted by predatory companies that run colleges. Carrie Wofford, president of Veterans Education Success, tells me that she’s hopeful President-elect Joe Biden will reverse Trump administration policies and forgive debt for students who have been defrauded.
Wofford said for-profit entities enroll 13 percent of students nationwide, but they account for more than 40 percent of student debt. Schools like Colorado Technical University and American InterContinental University take one-third of all G.I. Bill funds and nearly half of all military student aid, she said.
Wofford said these schools target students of color and veterans, who are often first-generation college students, and pressure them to take out loans for tuition not covered by the G.I. Bill. To better support veterans entering higher education, Wofford suggests we enforce laws that prevent on-base recruiting from predatory colleges, close existing loopholes, and provide better information to service members during separation.
“You want service members and veterans to be given fair and accurate information,” she said, “so that they can make a good decision about the schools that might serve them well vs. schools that might take advantage of them.”
Honoring our veterans includes a critical examination of how our nation has supported them after separating from the service. As America heads toward new aid and recovery packages, the clear disconnect between the intent of the G.I. Bill and its discriminatory implementation should serve as a lesson to policymakers and practitioners.