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Narrow the college gap for vets

They deserve more generous college benefits – despite worries about retention.

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Veterans back from Iraq and Afghanistan mounted a political assault on Congress this week. They want more benefits for college education proposed in a modern "GI Bill" because payouts don't cover costs. World War II vets got a free ticket to earn a sheepskin. Shouldn't today's?

It's not an easy question to answer. Two veterans themselves – Sen. Jim Webb, a Democrat, and Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate – can't agree. The issue is coming to a head as pre-election pressure builds to include more education benefits in a spending bill to fund the wars.

Both men acknowledge that today's benefits fall short of the steeply rising price of college, covering only about 75 percent of the average cost of four years at a public university. The gap is a source of bitterness among vets.

But the senators clash over the size and timing of more benefits. Mr. McCain and the Pentagon worry that increasing the payout too much, too quickly will cause a stampede out of the service at a time when it is stretched thin.

Mr. Webb says that's nonsense. His bipartisan bill, which has heavy Democratic support, would essentially restore the post-World War II-era benefits, covering the cost of the most expensive public school in a vet's state and paying a stipend for living expenses pegged to local costs. Veterans who had served three years after 9/11 would be eligible – about 1.6 million people so far. McCain's proposal would increase benefits for active-duty troops somewhat now, but require staying in the military 12 years to get the largest increase.

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