How the GI Bill changed colleges and universities

The influx of new students in the 1940s and ’50s helped create today’s higher education-industrial complex.

This column is the first of two exploring the causes of higher education’s challenges today.

The college football season has begun and, for a few hours each weekend at least, we are able to think about our colleges and universities fondly, without being reminded of how messed up they have become.

The football aura won’t last long, though, and soon enough we will return to the all-too-familiar stories of disruption and failures. Football isn’t enough to protect our image of ivy-covered walls and halcyon days of learning. To understand the events and forces that have transformed our beloved campuses will take more than a promising new quarterback or an awesome defensive line. It will take some history.

By the middle of 1944 it was clear the Allies were going to win the war. There would be more bloodshed and lives lost, but the end was becoming clear. With a level of foresight rarely seen in recent times, Congress realized that soon more than 10 million World War II soldiers, sailors and Marines were going to be “demobilized” into civilians and would be rejoining the labor force.

Economists didn’t enjoy the standing they now have in government, but few people in Washington, D.C. believed that our economy could successfully absorb the sudden influx of that many workers. Many in government believed that the end of the war would mean that the U.S. was headed for a reenactment of the Depression of the 1930s.

Certainly it could have happened that way, but several factors, economic and social, combined instead to produce a boom.

It turned out, for example, that women were not wedded to their jobs. Most of those whose husbands returned from overseas left their employers to return to domestic life. Over time, as we know, that would change, but the initial effect cushioned somewhat the workforce impact of the returning servicemen. A considerable number of men dropped out of the workforce after the war, too, but their reasons are less clear.

In 1944, though, no one knew that would occur. And the government wanted to do something positive. In order to avoid a recession or depression, the administration and the Congress took two actions that had an economic impact: the G.I. Bill and, and, later, the Employment Act of 1946. The Employment Act dumped the responsibility for employment on the president and brought both economists and macroeconomics to public view.

The G.I. Bill, technically the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, contained several benefits for those in uniform returning from the battlefields of World War II. One of those benefits would subsidize the costs of higher education or skills training for the discharged servicemen.

By the time the law expired, about 2.2 million ex-GIs had arrived at college campuses across the country.

The colleges and universities they arrived at, especially the Eastern ones, hadn’t really changed in decades. Dink Stover would feel right at home. He was the central character in a 1912 popular novel chronicling college life in the early 1900s. In many ways, colleges hadn’t changed a bit.

Many GIs registered at colleges and universities that were still deeply immersed in ivy-clad traditions. Freshmen were required to wear beanies that identified them as such. And it was expected that this would open them up to harassment and humiliations by upperclassmen, especially sophomores.

Veterans of desert, jungle, and woodland warfare were not about to take a lot of nonsense just because it was a tradition. And they most certainly were not going to wear beanies.

The G.I. Bill students were older and more serious about their studies generally than their more traditional classmates. They would go on from there to become the middle and top managers of our economy during one of its most productive and expansive periods in our history.

They may not have wanted to change higher education but change it they did. Probably the biggest transformation was caused simply by their numbers. Colleges and universities had to expand to handle the inflow and experienced for the first time the headiness of rapid growth. Next they would experience its addictive power — the same addiction to growth that drives the private sector of our economy.

It would take another pivot point to bring higher education to its current state of disarray. And prior to that pivot point they came to realize more fully the magical power of government money. It made an excellent fuel for expansion, and higher education hit the accelerator. Another generation would pass before its costs were recognized. By that time, our higher education institutions had set an apparently irreversible course.

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