The history of the GI Bill

President Roosevelt signs the GI Bill into law on June 22, 1944. (Photo: FDR Library)President Roosevelt signs the GI Bill into law on June 22, 1944. (Photo: FDR Library)

This essay is part of the larger radio documentary From Boots to Books, which you can listen to in its entirety on this website or on our podcast feed (iTunes).

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Bill Orr grew up on a dairy farm in Minnesota, a child of the Great Depression, bottling milk and selling it door to door. Six months after he graduated from high school, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Six months later, he found himself on the USS Patoka supporting American troops in Africa.

Orr worked part time in the ship’s library, and there, among the stacks of books, he fell in love with reading and decided to go to college. He scrimped and saved and, when the war ended and he returned home, he showed up at the University of Minnesota’s admissions office with cash in hand, ready to start paying for a college education.

But school administrators told him he didn’t need money. He had the GI Bill.

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The Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944 — the GI Bill — was designed to help veterans like Bill Orr. But its origins trace back to a previous generation of veterans.

The year was 1932. The country was in the teeth of the Great Depression. Congress announced it was cutting the bonuses it had promised the men who fought in World War I. Tens of thousands of veterans marched on Washington, set up camp in the shadow of the Capitol, and refused to move.

Bonus Marchers camped on the lawn of the US Capitol By Underwood & Underwood [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Bonus Marchers camped on the lawn of the US Capitol
By Underwood & Underwood [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

President Herbert Hoover ordered the Army to clear the “Bonus Marchers” out. Soldiers threw tear gas at former soldiers and burned their tents.

“Politically it was a disaster for Hubert Hoover,” says Michael Gambone, professor of history at Kutztown University and author of The Greatest Generation Comes Home: The Veteran in American Society. “In no way, shape or form did anyone want a repeat of that.”

Hoover’s successor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, pledged to learn from past mistakes. From the beginning of World War II, the Roosevelt administration began to plan for post-war economic recovery. In a radio broadcast in 1943, Roosevelt laid out plans for the reintegration of returning troops.

“They must not be demobilized into an environment of inflation and unemployment, to a place on a bread line, or on a corner selling apples,” he said.

But the best way to reintegrate veterans wasn’t obvious. Some lawmakers thought returning service people should compete for a limited number of college scholarships. Others wanted to encourage veterans to enter certain crucial industries by subsidizing training programs in areas like engineering and business.

“No one thought the education provisions were going to be important.”
–historian Michael Gambone

The plan that won out came from the American Legion, whose leaders reportedly first sketched it out on a restaurant napkin in the Mayflower Hotel in Washington D.C. The plan proposed a comprehensive support package for veterans, covering everything from education to low-interest housing and business loans. It would become the GI Bill.

The GI Bill was intensely debated in Congress. Some lawmakers worried veterans would take advantage of the plan’s generous unemployment benefits and never return to work. But the American Legion lobbied Congress heavily and the GI Bill made it through to the president.

When Roosevelt signed the GI Bill in June of 1944, “no one thought the education provisions were going to be important,” says Michael Gambone. Only about four in 10 Americans had even a high school diploma at the time, and the law’s drafters thought the Bill’s jobs and housing provisions would have the most impact. But they underestimated the thirst for education that service members brought back with them.

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A staggering 16 million soldiers returned home from World War II, and millions of them went to school. Because GI Bill benefits were generous enough to pay for any college in the country, veterans flooded all types of institutions, from elite schools like Harvard to large state schools, to vocational schools. By 1947, half of all college students in America were veterans.

Veteran Frank Stoll attended the University of Chicago on the GI Bill. In an oral history interview with the Wisconsin Veterans Museum in 1994, he recalled the temporary housing that colleges erected to house the influx of new students.

“You take an institution that had been exclusive and rarified and really what you’re doing is democratizing it. The expectation became that education is a right, not a privilege.”
–historian Michael Gambone

“I remember when I came here, the veterans were living in these Quonset huts,” he said. “The saying was, ‘If it’s hollow, rent it.’ They were living everywhere.”

Not everyone thought allowing the masses into college was such a good idea. Writing in Collier’s Magazine in December of 1944, University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins worried that veterans would transform universities into “educational hobo jungles.” But within a few years, The New York Times was reporting that “the G.I.’s are hogging the honor rolls and the Dean’s lists,” and Life Magazine concluded that, due to their “seriousness, perceptiveness, steadiness,” veteran students at Harvard University were “the best in Harvard’s history.”

As college opened up, societal attitudes about it changed as well. Before the GI Bill, higher education was the realm of the upper class. Campus life was dictated by the traditions of the elite old boys’ network: At many schools, freshmen were forced to wear beanies, or forbidden from sitting on certain benches.

Veterans didn’t have time for that kind of thing.

“You take an institution that had been exclusive and rarified and really what you’re doing is democratizing it,” says Michael Gambone. “The expectation became that education is a right, not a privilege.”

That shift transformed the lives of veterans like Frederick Lapides, who grew up in a working class family in New Haven.

“I saw my fate,” Lapides said in an oral history interview recorded in 2006. “I was going to work in a factory in New Haven, the way my father had, for the rest of my life. That was it. I never thought I was college material. My family could not have afforded it. If I decided I wanted to go, they would have said, ‘Lots of luck to you, because we don’t have any money.'”

After World War II, Lapides used the GI Bill to enroll at Rutgers University.

The GI Bill paid for his entire education. Lapides became an English professor and, in turn, taught the next generation of college students.

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If the goal of the 1944 GI Bill was to avoid another depression, it worked. The Bill not only led to a massive expansion in  higher education, but also helped expand the nation’s economy as a whole. Congress estimated that for every dollar spent under the GI Bill, the economy got seven dollars back.

Veterans registering for classes at Indiana University, 1947. (Photo: Indiana University Archives)

Veterans registering for classes at Indiana University, 1947. (Photo: Indiana University Archives)

The GI Bill also increased the country’s intellectual capital exponentially. The Bill funded the educations of 22,000 dentists, 67,000 doctors, 91,000 scientists, 238,000 teachers, 240,000 accountants, and 450,000 engineers, as well as three Supreme Court justices, three presidents, a dozen senators, 14 Nobel Prize winners, and two dozen Pulitzer Prize Winners.

Those people, and their descendants, represent the legacy of the GI Bill. But the Bill has another legacy: the idea that the nation owes the people who fight its wars the opportunity to attain an education.

That promise eroded over the years. While the GI Bill has persisted in some form since World War II, the real value of the benefits declined as costs of higher education skyrocketed. By 2007, the GI Bill couldn’t cover the cost of education at many schools.

But a new GI Bill was on the horizon.

This essay is part of the larger radio documentary From Boots to Books, which you can listen to in its entirety on this website or on our podcast feed (iTunes).

Episode: From Boots to Books