What The GI Bill Means To America
By Robert G. Duffett, President
On June 22, 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law the GI Bill of Rights, formally known as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944. The Bill was sponsored and written by the American Legion and unanimously passed both houses of Congress. At the time, the most attractive features of the bill were employment opportunities, unemployment compensation, job training and mortgages for homes and farms.
Surprisingly today, the bill is most widely known for its generous educational provisions. Uncle Sam paid for tuition, lab fees, books, supplies, and other educational expenses up to $500 per year, plus a monthly subsistence allowance up to $75. This benefit could be used at both state and church-related colleges and universities. To put this in perspective, a full year of tuition at Harvard in 1945 was $400 (now almost $39,000 annually). A vet could obtain a Harvard degree and have change in his or her pocket at the end of four years!
The beneficence of the federal government was not due to a swelling national treasury or certainty on the outcome of the war. Only two weeks before Roosevelt signed the GI Bill, the D-Day Invasion began. Some of the most bloody and deadly battles in Europe and the Pacific were yet ahead. It was a “toss up” if the Allies might win either theatre of the war. Rather, the chief motivation was economic realism. The war would end sometime. Regardless of outcome, many feared that the American economy would collapse again into depression. All feared the social chaos and mayhem 15 million demobilized GIs might create with few jobs and lack of educational opportunity.
What are the lessons of history from the GI Bill of 1944 that may be helpful to legislators and American citizens today?
First, the GI Bill changed forever who aspires to a college degree. Before the GI Bill, college was for teachers, nurses and the social elite. In the post-GI Bill era, college was for all Americans with the intellectual gifts, motivation and desire – not just those from the “right side of the tracks.”
Second, amazing for its time, the GI Bill contained no gender, racial or religious bans. If a soldier or sailor qualified, Uncle Sam paid – the same amount for everyone. No one received more or less. It would be a historical stretch to suggest the GI Bill eliminated Jewish admissions quotas at Ivy League colleges, opened southern universities to African Americans or was a harbinger of 1960s feminism. However, the unintended social impact of the legislation challenged many long-held social norms about Jews, women, and African Americans.
Third, the GI Bill produced the most highly educated workforce in world history at the precise time the American economy transitioned from an industrial economy to a technological one. Over 3 times as many GIs attended college than was estimated – probably attributable to the generosity of benefits. The result was an American workforce, unlike other western countries, with the necessary intellectual capital and numbers to create, deliver and become the world leader in technology and basic research.
Last, taxpayer money spent on the GI Bill (government pork to some) during 1940s and early 1950s was paid back to the federal treasury by its benefactors in less than 25 years.
The Veterans Administration estimated that the total cost of the GI Bill for WWII and Korean War veterans was $19 billion. The Department of Labor and Commerce estimated that by 1964 these same veterans paid an additional $20 billion in federal taxes due to better paying jobs as a result of their college education from the GI Bill. Hence, the GI Bill actually made money for the federal government.
Sometimes the way to the future is through the past. The historical record suggests a simple correlation: generous tax payer grants to attend college increases the intellectual capacity of our country, which results in swelling tax revenues.
Tom Brokaw said the WWII generation was America’s “Greatest Generation.” If he is correct, perhaps it was the GI Bill of 1944 that made the greatest generation great? Could it be that a similar level of federal financial generosity today could make the present generation the next “Great Generation?”