The American Dream and the G.I. Bill of Rights

The American Dream and the G.I. Bill of Rights

By Robert G. Duffett, President
Eastern University, St. Davids, Pennsylvania

Seventy years ago today (June 22), President Franklin Roosevelt, signed into law the Serviceman's Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the G.I. Bill of Rights. The most popular features of the bill then were mustering out pay, unemployment compensation and job training benefits. Today, the bill is celebrated for providing a free college education to thousands of World War II Veterans. The bill committed Uncle Sam to paying for fees, books, and tuition up to $500 per year. A monthly subsistence allowance was provided as well. To put this into perspective, Harvard College charged $400 per year for tuition in 1944 and 1945. The Bill would entirely pay for a Harvard degree, and with some thrift, a Veteran could leave Cambridge with pocket cash.

Before the war ended, most Veterans' groups estimated that only 7 to 10% of eligible G.I.s would attend college. How wrong those estimates were. Almost 40% - which translates to over 2,200,000 Veterans - jammed into American universities immediately after the war. In 1949, nearly half of all American college students were G.I. Bill recipients. Why did so many Vets choose to attend college?  Ask them. Through surveys (especially from Professor Suzanne Mettler of Syracuse University), interviews and conversations; the Vets themselves say the Bill made college affordable and/or allowed them to attend better colleges. The princely benefits meant they could accumulate course hours more quickly toward degree completion and not have to work a part-time job (or many jobs). And, it is not an overstatement to suggest that the Bill was an inducement to dream of occupations out of reach, especially among those from poorer, blue collar or working class families. Many G.I. Bill alumni look back 7 decades from where they came. Many never considered college before hearing about the G.I. Bill. College existed for rich kids, not them. Few friends or people they knew went to college. Most had no higher occupational ambition than their father’s job. The Bill fueled ambition, shattered social barriers, generated opportunity and made possible college education for the masses. The result was better jobs and often dramatic upward mobility.

So, from the perspective of 70 years, what "bang" did American society receive via extravagant taxpayer "bucks”?

First, the G.I. Bill actually made money for the federal government. By 1955, the end of the WWII G.I. Bill period, the total cost of the bill was $14.5 billion. The Department of Labor and Commerce estimated that by 1964, G.I. Bill Veterans already paid an additional $20 billion in  tax revenue due to better paying jobs, courtesy of the G.I. Bill. Edwin Kiester’s article, "The G.I. Bill May Be the Best Deal Ever Made by Uncle Sam,” well describes the Bill’s economic impact.

Second, management guru Peter Drucker wonders if future historians might rate the G.I. Bill as the most important "event "of the 20th century. Why? It produced the most highly educated workforce in world history at the precise moment the American economy transitioned from an industrial to a technological one.

The G.I. Bill: Then… and Now?

The evidence is clear; the return on investment from a college education today is even greater than when the WWII G.I. Bill Veterans received their degrees, yet the value of a college degree is frequently questioned. College costs too much. Student loans are too high. There are too many college dropouts and underprepared students. These are valid concerns and criticisms.

Could we learn and thus benefit from the stunning success of the first G.I. Bill? If the Bill so transformed Veterans then, could a comparable new program do the same for college students today? History is instructive: generous, even lavish, tuition benefits to all who qualified shaped an entire generation and the American economy. If we the people, today, seek the same generational and economic transformation, should we not follow the tried and true path of a former generation? Is our present student aid public policy too meager and miserly for the social and economic outcomes we need? Student loans were largely unknown in the G.I. Bill era.

Maybe Peter Drucker's assessment of the G.I. Bill and Tom Brokaw's sobriquet of our grandparents and parents points to a new vision of college affordability grounded in past success: Could it be that the greatest legislation created the greatest generation?

Note: Photo Courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum, Hyde Park, NY.

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