Bakersfield College will hold a GI Bill Veterans Workshop this week to entice returning members of the military to take advantage of education benefits.
About 300 students are attending BC with tuition help from the GI Bill or the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Program -- also known as the Chapter 31 program -- which assists veterans who have service-related disabilities.
Daniel Jones, 24, was a military police officer in the U.S. Army before he returned to Bakersfield to attend BC.
"It's been really beneficial, no question about it," he said. "It would have been much more difficult to go to school without it."
Nationally, the number of veterans pursuing vocational or higher education through the GI Bill rose 124 percent from 2001 to 2012 to 945,052, said Veterans Administration spokesman Randal Noller.
The number has been increasing as the Afghanistan and Iraq wars wind down, he said.
Most colleges and universities, including Cal State Bakersfield and BC, have designated someone to help smooth the transition from warrior to scholar.
At BC, that's professor of history Paul Beckworth, a Navy veteran who served in the Persian Gulf and Somalia and advises the school's Veterans Club.
Military life is very structured, he said.
"They tell you: This is the time you're going to wake up. This is the time you're going to eat. This is the time you're going to poop. This is the time you're going to march. This is the time you're going to go to class. This is when you're going home," Beckworth said. "So to go from that to a really unstructured environment, sometimes you feel lost."
It also doesn't help that veterans are generally older than students going to college straight from high school.
"These aren't kids living at home with mom doing their laundry for them," Beckworth said. "Sometimes they're married with families to support."
The GI Bill can help relieve at least the financial portion of that pressure.
The post-9-11 bill helps cover tuition, fees and books, and provides a monthly housing allowance.
To be eligible for 100 percent of the benefit, an individual must have served 36 months on active duty or been discharged for a service-connected disability after 30 days of service.
All four branches of the military make service members aware of home loan guarantee and education benefits prior to discharge, but not everyone who is eligible for them uses them.
That's a shame, Beckworth said.
The GI Bill makes higher education available to people who otherwise might not be able to afford a college education, a role it has played since President Franklin D. Roosevelt first signed it into law in 1944, he said.
"It completely democratized college, which previously had only been available to an elite class of people," he said.
The program pays for itself because educated veterans earn higher taxable incomes. That means it's good for the economy as well as the veterans who use it, Beckworth added.
The GI Bill has been updated several times over the years. In 2008, it was expanded to cover more educational expenses, provide a living allowance, money for books and the ability to transfer unused educational benefits to spouses or children.
U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, recently introduced a bill to revise it again. H.R. 357, the GI Bill Tuition Fairness Act, would offer in-state tuition rates to veterans at any public university in the country.
U.S. Army veteran Wesley Leon-Barrientos, 28, hadn't considered college before enlisting. He loved his job as an infantryman and had planned to stay in the military, but then he lost both legs to a roadside bomb in Iraq.
Now he's studying biology at BC with plans to transfer to a four-year school and earn a degree in occupational therapy.
"The way the occupational and physical therapists treated me when I went through my recovery really made it easier for me," Leon-Barrientos said. "I want to help other people."
Leon-Barrientos said he's not sure he could have afforded college without the GI Bill, but today a degree is a realistic goal and more imperative than ever. "Especially now, with the economy being what it is, there aren't a lot of jobs for people coming straight out of high school," he said.
Army veteran Jones hopes there's a good turnout at Thursday's workshop.
"If you're thinking about using the GI Bill, you're thinking too much," he said. "Use the GI Bill. Just use it."