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
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT