Robert W. Kelly, Associated Press
In this 1947 photograph, Marlboro College had only two buildings that served the campus. Of the first 50 students, 35 were World War II veterans.

When Walter Hendricks returned home from France in 1946 to start a college on his Vermont farm, 35 of the first 50 students were fellow GIs — young men experienced beyond their years, eager to learn, and grateful for a peaceful place to do so.

Sixty-two years later, Marlboro College is firmly established, known for independent students who direct their own course of study.

But it no longer teems with veterans. In fact, there is just one.

Rising senior Jeff Bristol served in Afghanistan but says it's not through the government-provided education benefits of the Montgomery GI bill that he can afford to attend the private college. To pay for college, Bristol also needed the money he earned as a private contractor in Iraq after his tour of duty.

Soon, however, there could be more money available to send veterans to private schools under a new GI bill being finalized in Congress.

Those who qualify would have more freedom to choose distinctive colleges like Marlboro, rather than being limited by finances to the community, for-profit and regional public colleges where most troops have typically used their GI benefits.

"It's not just some other school where you are force-fed knowledge in a class with 500 people," Bristol wrote of Marlboro, in an e-mail from Morocco, where he is traveling and doing research this summer. "That might work out for some, but for me it was a waste of time."

The bills, expected to pass both houses of Congress by veto-proof majorities early next week, make a range of changes affecting cost-of-living allowances, the time veterans have to use benefits, and other aspects of the complex web of veterans' education benefits.

But the change that has gotten the most attention is that the government would cover full tuition for veterans at their state's most expensive public college.

For students hoping to attend private institutions like Marlboro, the government would provide the cost of the priciest public university plus a dollar-for-dollar match of aid the colleges provide to help make up the difference.

Bristol says liberal arts colleges like Marlboro could particularly benefit from having more veterans because they "rely so much on their students and what they bring to the table."

The added benefits will cost an estimated $52 billion over 10 years. President Bush and some lawmakers have supported an alternative measure, arguing the current bill is so generous it will discourage re-enlistment.

Late last week, however, the White House signaled Bush might sign the bill but now wanted to add even more education benefits for spouses and children — a development veterans advocates greeted with stunned delight.

After first balking at the cost, lawmakers were persuaded that allowing GIs to attend whatever colleges are best for them was worth it.

"Veterans should be able to dream the same dreams that other students have," said Dartmouth College president James Wright, a veteran himself, who lobbied lawmakers to include the private college provision.

The original 1944 GI bill helped educate nearly 8 million World War II veterans, flooding campuses ranging from land-grant state schools to the Ivy League. Its impact, transforming American higher education and society itself, echoes to this day.

But veterans' advocates argue the benefits haven't kept pace with tuition increases, relegating veterans to a second-class educational experience. They have cited figures showing 90 percent of veterans attend community college at some point, compared to 38 percent of people overall.

Partly, that reflects many veterans aren't ready for four-year college work, but financial issues certainly play a role, too.

"We should be able to give people the opportunity to choose what's best for them," said Patrick Campbell, legislative director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "The whole purpose of the GI bill isn't just to get people into college, it's to give people a chance to catch up to where they would have been."

Certainly, many using the GI bill will continue to follow the same paths to community colleges and perhaps four-year public universities.

But some, at least, will have a better chance of attending private colleges which — though not necessarily better — often have distinctive cultures that can be beneficial when the fit is right. Marlboro is among the more unusual such places, focusing on liberal arts but giving students wide leeway to create their own, often interdisciplinary, intellectual courses of study.

President Ellen McCulloch-Lovell says the school's culture was crafted by its early GI students, who wanted to be treated as colleagues of their teachers.

The veteran population, however, nearly disappeared because of costs and the sense among many vets that they needed preprofessional training more than a liberal arts degree.

Now the school president would love to get some veterans back.

"I think we're better as an intellectual community when we have people of a wider array of ages and experiences," she said.

A number of colleges are likely to step up with targeted aid for veterans to cover the remaining gap from the GI bill. Pace University in New York is among the schools already actively recruiting veterans, offering a 50-percent tuition break for Afghanistan and Iraq veterans and advertising in veterans' publications and Web sites.

Many veterans, Bristol said, don't consider colleges like Marlboro for cultural reasons and for lack of familiarity. Without doing extra research, he says, he likely would have ended up at his home-state University of Florida.

"I knew I wanted something more," said Bristol, who is triple-majoring in history, anthropology and languages. "I liked the tradition (of Marlboro's being founded by veterans) and figured there couldn't be many of us there anymore because of A) the price, and B) it seemed pretty full of hippies, which it kind of is."

But money is the main reason he says most fellow veterans don't attend colleges like Marlboro.

The average list price for tuition and fees for a private four-year college is $23,712, though accounting for financial aid the average net cost is $14,400.

Marlboro's tuition and expenses run $41,220 annually, though 80 percent of students receive financial aid. The current GI benefit is $1,101 per month for up to 36 months for qualifying active-duty personnel and $317 per month for Reservists.

"In some ways, for better or worse, our life experience works against us," Bristol said. "Most high school students don't realize what exactly debt is; so they are willing to (acquire) tons of it. We, on the other hand, have generally had car loans, bills, and so the idea of going $80,000 in debt for a private education is scary."

"Because of my language (skills) I could get a good, extremely well-compensated job in Iraq which is allowing me to go to school nearly debt-free," he said.

"But not every veteran has that opportunity."