Grad student and former Marine Mariette Kalinowski teaches undergrads at City University of New York’s Hunter College.
Grad student and former Marine Mariette Kalinowski teaches undergrads at City University of New York’s Hunter College. - 

Mariette Kalinowski is a reminder that a good education is about much more than resume building and career advancement.

“Going back to school was what saved my life,” says the former Marine. “Coming back from Iraq, I was in a very dark place and I was very quickly spiraling into that point of no return.”

Instead, Kalinowski finished a bachelor’s degree and is now working on a master’s in fiction at the City University of New York’s Hunter College. She published a short story based on her war experience, has a literary agent and is writing a novel.

This semester, she’s teaching undergrads creative writing. Some students look a little groggy in the 8 a.m. class as they discuss the assigned Kurt Vonnegut reading. Kalinowski doesn’t mention she once woke up a lot earlier to ride in Marine convoys manning a heavy machine gun.

Kalinowski is in the classroom because of the new GI Bill, signed into law five years ago. The program boosted educational funding available for veterans who served after 9/11. A million plus have taken advantage, and the government has paid more than $30 billion in benefits.

Helping veterans afford college is a tradition that goes back to World War II. The original GI Bill was so popular that in 1947, veterans made up about half of all college admissions. And the whole economy benefited as they got better jobs.

But over the years, Congress cut benefits even as the price of education soared. After 9/11, as new waves of vets came back from Iraq and Afghanistan, political momentum grew to make college affordable for them.

“There was a sense that we really needed to improve the GI Bill in order to make that possible,” explains Jennifer Steele, an education policy researcher at the RAND Corporation.

Now, veterans with three years of post-9/11 active duty service can get state school tuition paid in full, plus money for books and living expenses. Better benefits mean more vets enrolling. And students don’t have to work side jobs while they study.

“It’s nice to have the peace of mind knowing that you are going to have the ability and the financial backing to go to school and really concentrate on it and give it 100 percent effort,” says Jesse Williams, and Army veteran of two Iraq tours.

Williams says transitioning from patrols in Sadr City to classes in New York City was “slightly disorienting” at first.

“You’re almost expecting the teacher to slam their hand on the desk and start yelling and tell someone to do pushups,” he remembers.

But he figured it out and he’s now a straight-A student. He’s about to graduate with a bachelor’s in political science from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

Williams recently offered advice at Four Block, a career development program for student veterans. He and some others in the group wear metal bracelets memorializing friends who don’t have the opportunity to use the GI Bill.

Research shows the new GI Bill is educating veterans who wouldn’t have been able to afford college under the previous program. The real test of success is a few years down the road, when we’ll know not just how many veterans are enrolling, but how many are graduating and getting good jobs.

With the new GI Bill come new concerns. Some for-profit schools and their recruiting practices have been in the spotlight. They enroll a small percentage of students overall, but pull in a disproportionate amount of GI Bill money.

To be sure, some vets select for-profits because they offer extensive online classes. Many veterans prefer distance learning to being on campus with younger students. And some disabled vets choose to study online for the convenience. But critics of for-profits say pushy and deceptive marketing is also a reason they’re bringing in so much federal money.

“When the motive is money and you’re selling a product and you’re looking to put people in the seats, the techniques are going to be that much more aggressive,” says Holly Petraeus, who leads efforts on military issues at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

She has stories of recruiters going after vets with traumatic brain injuries, who later got bills for classes they don’t remember signing up for. Many veterans have frustrating tales of their experiences in for-profit school, of unfulfilled job-placement promises, credits other schools wouldn’t accept and degrees that employers didn’t value.

“If you’re going to take that money, it’s a public trust,” says Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway. “Some of these for-profit schools cease to see this as a public trust and instead see it as a source of revenue to fuel their greed.”

Conway led the fight to shut down GIBill.com, which looked like an official government site but was actually built to funnel veterans to for-profit schools. Among other things, the settlement handed the web address to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Apart from the issues raised about some for-profit schools, the post-9/11 GI Bill has won broad political and public support thanks to success stories. Take Navy veteran Monique Tuyisenge-Onyegbula, an American-born daughter of Rwandan parents. Her family returned to Africa when she was a child. The Rwandan genocide forced them into refugee camps.

“We were living in conditions that no human being should ever have to live through,” Tuyisenge-Onyegbula recalls. “We were dying of cholera and preventable diseases.”

She escaped with a resolve to work in global development. Her wartime service on the U.S.S. Wasp opened the door. A Columbia University master’s degree in hand, she’s now at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Whether the new GI Bill can boost the economy like the original bill is an open question. But for people like Mariette Kalinowski, the former Marine turned grad student, it has already transformed her life.

“I wake up and just almost can’t recognize what my life has turned into,” she says. “I’m extremely thankful.”

Follow Mark Garrison at @GarrisonMark