Skip to main content

Today's vets get shortchanged on GI Bill

By Glenn C. Altschuler
updated 12:47 PM EDT, Sat June 28, 2014
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
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT