THE GRIM NEWS of the city's high dropout rate (45 percent) and low numbers of people with college degrees (18 percent) is even grimmer considering we're seeing a similar troubling trend in the military.

The National Priorities Project, a research group that analyzes federal data, found that only 71 percent of Army recruits had earned regular high-school diplomas, about 20 percentage points away from its target of 90 percent.

This has far-reaching implications on the battlefields and the homefront, but there is one silver lining: Congress can use it to spur positive action by adapting a 21st-century version of the G.I. Bill.

The G.I. Bill - the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 - was designed to help veterans assimilate into civilian life, with tuition assistance, low-cost housing loans, and unemployment benefits.

Sadly, the G.I. Bill has been left to decompose, not updated or adjusted to deliver the same promise to our newest veterans.

The nonprofit Fund for Veterans' Education reports that the maximum amount a veteran who served on active duty could get out of the old G.I. Bill is $39,636 over four years. While not insignificant, it would hardly cover the cost of a four-year state college for an in-state student, which averages $65,428; private college averages more than $105,000. So, veterans are asked to saddle tens of thousands of dollars of debt, or find the cash to go to college on their own. If they can't, we tell them, "Go find work with your high school diploma, if you have one."

That's a national disgrace.

Sending veterans to college isn't just a moral issue; it's a practical one. Historian Stephen Ambrose said of the old G.I. Bill that it "was the best piece of legislation ever passed by the U.S. Congress, and it made modern America." Indeed, the G.I. Bill created hundreds of thousands of teachers, doctors, artists and engineers, who went on to create, in the 1950s, what we now call the middle class.

U.S. Sens. Jim Webb, D-Va., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., are working on a 21st-Century G.I. Bill that will restore America's promise to those who fought for us. Fixing the G.I. Bill is the right thing to do, not only because of the benefits it provides to all of us, but because it would go a long way to rectifying the government's shameful treatment of the health and well-being of those we ask to serve.

Congress should fast-track that legislation, and sign it. *