Skip to main content

Today's vets get shortchanged on GI Bill

By Glenn C. Altschuler
June 28, 2014 -- Updated 1647 GMT (0047 HKT)
WWII war vets going to college on the GI bill take notes in a class at the University of Iowa.
WWII war vets going to college on the GI bill take notes in a class at the University of Iowa.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Glenn Altschuler: 70 years ago, FDR signed GI Bill; more than 2 million went to college on it
  • After later wars, America's promise of higher education to vets diminshed, he says
  • He says GI Bill paid off: Vets got better jobs, were more civicly engaged, paid more taxes
  • Writer: Congress must reprioritize this educational pact with vets and all Americans

Editor's note: Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin professor of American Studies and the dean of the School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions at Cornell University. He is the co-author, with Stuart M. Blumin of "The GI Bill: A New Deal for Veterans."

(CNN) -- Seventy years ago this week, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the GI Bill of Rights, formally the Servicemen's Readjustment Act, which the House of Representatives and Senate passed unanimously. It authorized unemployment compensation for a maximum of 52 weeks and guaranteed farm, home and business loans up to $2,000 to World War II veterans.

Most importantly, by providing up to four years of education and training at annual tuition rates of up to $500 (the rate then charged by Harvard), plus a monthly living stipend, the bill made it possible for GIs to attend any college or university that would accept them.

That was then.

Glenn Altschuler
Glenn Altschuler

In 2014, the promise of full and equal access to higher education for men and women in the armed services, and, for that matter, for all academically qualified Americans, has not been fulfilled. Family income, not a concerted national initiative, still dictates whether students, including servicemen and women, go to college and which institutions they attend.

More than 2 million World War II veterans went to college on the GI Bill. At least a quarter of them could not have done this without it. Many excelled; GIs appeared with regularity on honors rolls and deans lists. And they more than paid back the investment that had been made in them. Many of them achieved higher occupational status, more job security, better health and pension benefits and paid more taxes than their peers.

They joined 50% more civic and political organizations and voted more frequently than their contemporaries in post-war America, according to Suzanne Mettler, author of "Soldiers to Citizens: The GI Bill and the Making of the Greatest Generation" and a professor of government at Cornell University.

They also upended a pervasive assumption at the time that college was best suited to affluent Americans. Influenced no doubt by the performance of the first wave of GI Bill students, the 1947 Truman Commission, Higher Education in American Democracy, called for "free and universal access to higher education" for all Americans based on the interests, needs, and abilities of each student, but without regard to race, creed, sex, national origin or economic circumstances.

The GI Bill and the Truman Commission Report touched off a golden age of higher education in the United States. Thanks in no small measure to funding for financial aid and research from states and the federal government, the number of undergraduates increased five-fold from 1945 to 1975, and graduate students nine-fold, according to Clay Shirky in "The End of Higher Education's Golden Age."

In the past 70 years, GI Bill benefits have become significantly less generous than the provisions of the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944. The Korean GI Bill of 1952, the Veterans Readjustment Benefits Act of 1966 and the Montgomery GI Bill of 1985 fell far short of covering tuition and fees at many public and private colleges and universities.

While 52% of World War II veterans enrolled in private colleges and universities under the GI Bill, only 20% of the veterans of Korea and Vietnam were able to do so. It has become more difficult to ask, as Time magazine did in the 1940s, "Why go to Podunk College when the government will send you to Yale?"

Obama vows better education for veterans
CNN Hero: Michael Conklin

Although Sen. James Webb wanted his GI Bill, signed into law by President George W. Bush on June 30, 2008, to give veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan "the same educational chance that 'The Greatest Generation' had," it provided tuition payments only up to the most expensive in-state public university and restricted eligibility to individuals who spent three years or more on active duty.

More generally, state appropriations for all higher education in recent years have leveled off or gone down, and federal funding for financial aid for undergraduates has not kept pace with the cost of attendance at public or private institutions. The maximum Pell grant, which accounted for about four-fifths of the cost at an average public university in the '70s, now covers about 31%.

Little wonder, then, that three of four individuals from families in the top quartile of the economic distribution have received undergraduate degrees by age 24, but only one of five in the third tier and one of 10 in the fourth -- and the median debt at graduation is rising rapidly. Or that the United States is no longer at the top -- or even near the top -- of countries that send the highest percentage of their young people to college.

More than ever, it is clear that educational achievement promotes economic growth, helps our nation compete in world markets and leads to high incomes as well as individual fulfillment.

So let's mark the 70th birthday of the GI Bill not just by celebrating one of the greatest pieces of legislation in American history. We must also insist that Congress make it a high priority to provide the opportunity for our servicemen and women -- and for all young men and women in the United States -- to use higher education to fulfill the American Dream and go as far and as fast as their ambition, discipline and talent will take them.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1952 GMT (0352 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT