The New GI bill is drawing attention to the 1944 law, which some say is mythologized

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It remains to be seen if the new law will prod more institutions to reach out to veterans or if it will transform veterans' enrollment patterns. But history suggests a skeptical view.

In the 60 years since its passage, the original GI bill has gained an almost mythical status. It has been credited with promoting postwar prosperity, expanding the middle class, and democratizing higher education in the United States. Some historians see it as a watershed in American higher education, the moment when college was transformed from a privilege to a right.

In some ways, the bill was transformative. When it passed, the average American service member had 11.5 years of schooling, and only 8 percent of troops planned to continue their education after the war, according to a survey conducted by the Veterans Affairs Department. Ultimately, more than half of World War II veterans did so.

The bill also helped diversify the nation's campuses, opening doors to more Jewish and Catholic students, as well as lower-class white Protestants and first-generation students. Black students enrolled in greater numbers, too, though some were shut out of segregated Southern institutions and thousands were turned away from overcrowded historically black colleges.

But some historians say the bill played a more modest role in the growth and diversification of the nation's colleges than it's given credit for. College attendance was already on the rise before World War II, with the number of bachelor's degrees awarded quadrupling between 1920 and 1940, according to the Census Bureau. The GI bill accelerated this trend, but it didn't create it, says Robert C. Serow, professor and head of the department of educational leadership and policy studies at North Carolina State University.

Mr. Serow and other skeptics cite a 1951 survey concluding that only 446,400 World War II veterans went to college because of the GI bill. That number is not insignificant, considering that national enrollments at the time hovered around 2.3 million, but it does not match the bill's mythology of social mobility, says Lizabeth Cohen, a professor of American studies at Harvard University who has written about the bill. Instead, she argues, it tended to privilege the privileged.

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vaughn davis bornet - 7/23/2008

I must say I haven't seen the new scholarship on the GIBill. But it's something I know a lot about.

Accompanying it was Public Law 16, which I used at Mercer University in the first half of 1946 to set up disabled veterans in major careers.

At University of Miami, which the GIBill virtually created in its modern form, from 1946 to 1948 I taught History to many hundreds of New York and other students who enjoyed GIBill benefits. (They were blocked out by Board of Regents andeluvian requirements on College Prep in their home state.)

At Stanford, virtually my entire doctoral class and adjacent ones were GIBill recipients. At Stanford Village, full of veterans and their extended families, without the Bill it would have been emptied.

Maybe a study of the GIBill needs to be narrowed to institutions (we gravitated to the better ones or those better located, probably), to locales, to undergraduate vs graduate, etc. I think this approach might prove rewarding.

Mrs. Bornet and I spent it ALL, just about. We lived, but not all that well! Our homes had been a mental institution and had wire in the window glass. We changed the heat by using a broom handle on a sliding square in the ceiling. Cooked on kerosene.

Our neighbors emerged to amount to SOMETHING in the world (we kept track of them easily).

I surely must be speaking for the Bachelors class of 1950, and the doctoral programs ending in the period 1949-52, that is, for everybody that was "in the War" and had their lives and their psychos modified by the GI Bill.

There it is: a Voice from the Past!

Vaughn Davis Bornet, Ph.D. Stanford, 1951.