The GI Bill and the American Dream

The Democratization of Higher Education Part Two: The GI Bill and the American Dream

The second part of our series on the democratization of higher education looks at the GI Bill. The legislation had an immediate effect on a generation of veterans who received unprecedented access to higher education. It also had a lasting effect by demonstrating that education was achievable and relevant for a broad cross-section of society.

Higher education facilities and enrollment were already expanding between the wars. However, prices were rising at a time when income was falling, and with limited aid available, college was a pipe dream for many Americans. As John R. Thelin states in A History of American Education, Second Edition (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011), “Even though higher education in the United States was edging toward mass participation, most Americans still saw college as a privilege rather than a right.”

With the end of World War II approaching, the Roosevelt administration began to plan for the reintegration of returning veterans. The American Legion drafted a proposal GI Bill of Rights that contained many elements that would make it into the final act. Franklin Roosevelt saw the opportunity to aid veterans and continue his New Deal policies.

The Serviceman’s Readjustment Act, commonly called the GI Bill, as passed in 1944 and amended in 1945, provided up to four years of education or training, including tuition up to $500 annually and a monthly allowance. Essentially, it gave any veteran who wanted it a free college education. The bill also provided unemployment benefits and guaranteed loans for homes and businesses.

The widespread assumption was that few veterans would use the education benefits, mainly those who had interrupted their college education. That is to say, the elite. Average GIs, it was believed, would want to get right to work and to start families. While some would opt for vocational training, few would want to spend four years in college.

In the end, 51% of veterans used their education benefits, causing a wave of expansion at U.S. universities, junior colleges and vocational institutes. Schools struggled to keep up with the demand for facilities and instructors. Universities went on a building boom, gambling that their increased enrollment would last beyond the first wave of veterans. The GI Bill literally changed the landscape of American higher education.

Veterans were different from traditional students. They were older, more experienced and about half of them were married, causing schools to invest in married housing for the first time. Veterans also were more likely to seek vocational and mental health counseling, prompting colleges to add these services.

Despite the fears of some, the broad cross-section of veterans who enrolled in universities didn’t lower academic standards. On the contrary, GIs soon won a reputation as serious, hardworking students. As Glenn C. Altschuler and Stuart M. Blumin state, in The GI Bill: A New Deal for Veterans (Oxford University Press, 2009), “The veterans’ performance helped shape popular perceptions of the GI Bill as far-sighted legislation by making equal opportunity a reality and changing assumptions about who could benefit from a college education.”

The GI Bill was one of the most inclusive pieces of legislation to date. It applied to all veterans--rich and poor, male and female, black and white. Not surprisingly, however, its benefits were felt disproportionately by white men. Women constituted only 2% of all veterans and societal pressures to raise children kept many of them out of school. The Veterans Administration was officially colorblind, but powerless to affect the many barriers to higher education that remained for minorities. In addition to segregated schools, many African-American students started with disadvantages in primary education. Though many individuals benefited, the GI Bill produced only incremental change.

The benefits of higher education for GIs were long-lasting. As a group, the veterans who used the GI Bill to get an education had greater lifelong earning power. Their children were more likely to go to college. They were more active in civic groups and politics. Perhaps the most important effect, however, is the example that these GIs set. As they told their stories, they showed themselves and the rest of society that middle class people could get and benefit from a college education.

As Altschuler and Blumin summarize, “Although scholars disagree about its inclusiveness and democratizing impact, the GI Bill was, without question, one of the largest and most comprehensive government initiatives ever enacted in the United States. A large majority of veterans who used it to buy homes or go back to school would say of it: ‘The GI Bill changed my life.’ And in the process of changing so many individual lives, it helped alter the institutional and physical landscapes of postwar America.”