President Obama on Monday called a new GI Bill offering college tuition assistance to veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan "an investment in our own country."
The new law is expected to offer veterans $78 billion in benefits over the coming decade. It is the most comprehensive education benefit offered to veterans since President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the original GI Bill for World War II veterans in 1944.
The new GI Bill is "not simply a debt that we are repaying to the remarkable men and women who have served," Obama said at a ceremony at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. "It is an investment in our own country."
The maximum benefit available under a law that took effect Saturday will cover the full tuition at a public college or university for four years for each eligible veteran, reservist and National Guard member. It also offers a monthly housing stipend and as much as $1,000 a year for books.
For those attending a private institution or graduate school, about 1,100 schools are offering additional scholarships matched by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Under the Yellow Ribbon Program, a provision of the new GI Bill, support is available for tuition that exceeds the highest public in-state undergraduate tuition.
The VA already has processed more than 112,000 claims for tuition under the new GI Bill, which the president called a tribute to "the men and women who have served since 9/11."
"While our discourse often produced more heat than light, especially here in Washington, they have put their very lives on the line for America. They have borne the responsibility of war," Obama said.
"And now, with this policy, we are making it clear that the United States of America must reward responsibility, and not irresponsibility. Now, with this policy, we are letting those who have borne the heaviest burden lead us into the 21st century."
Under the new law, service members who agree to serve four more years in the military also can opt to transfer the tuition benefit to their spouse or children.
It's anticipated that nearly half a million veterans or family members could participate in the first year.
Though the law has been widely praised by veterans groups, concerns also have been raised that universities and the VA could be overwhelmed because of the complexity of the benefit.
There have been complaints that veterans attending private schools in states that offer low public tuition face a huge disparity in what they can collect.
The benefits range from 40% of the state tuition for those with at least 90 days but less than six months of service since Sept. 11, 2001, to 100% for those with at least 36 months of aggregate service, or 30 continuous days and a discharge because of a service-related disability.