The GI Bill: A History and Future Projections (Part 1 of 2)

By Matt Vigeant, staff editor Since 9/11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, policy makers have faced the issue of what programs to enact for returning veterans. Veterans, who make up a small percentage of the population, are a priority to receive federal benefits due to their efforts on behalf of their country, along with the special circumstances and risks they face when returning to civilian life. Over my next two posts I will describe the evolution of education benefits under the GI Bill and compare what effects this plan has had on veterans and American society in general.

The original GI Bill came about mainly in response to the plight that WWI veterans faced when they returned home from Europe.  When the Great War ended in 1918, veterans were given only $60 and a free train ticket home.  Lacking a proper social safety net to deal with issues such as unemployment and post-traumatic stress disorder, veterans suffered heavily during the 1920’s and through the Great Depression.

With this experience in mind, as well as fears of returning to a depression if millions of men came home to no jobs, a bill was drafted to provide benefits for returning veterans. It laid out three key provisions:

(1)Low-interest, zero-down home loans backed by the Veterans Administration

(2)Free educational/vocational benefits

(3)Unemployment pay of up to $20 a week for 52 weeks

Focusing on the education plank, the plan allowed people who would otherwise not have had the opportunity to attend costly universities the chance to earn a degree. By 1956, 7.8 million veterans had taken advantage of this provision and gone to college.  This created a newly educated labor force that wasn’t from the upper social strata of US society.  Combined with the effects of home ownership, these changes built the new American middle class, and the economic growth of the 1950’s.

Despite the gains that the original GI Bill produced, the program was changed for Korean War veterans.  First, the VA stopped paying tuition directly to schools and instead sent the veteran $110 each month.  Additionally, the time covered for schooling was cut from 48 to 36 months and book stipends were eliminated, creating a 25% decrease in overall benefits from WWII veteran levels.  This led to a decrease in the number of veterans taking advantage of GI Bill Educational/vocational benefits from 50.5% of WWII veterans to 43.4% of Korean War veterans.

The program decreased even further for Vietnam Veterans; estimates put the value of the GI Bill at only 50% of WWII levels.  Additionally, in an era when more and more people were going to college compared to post-WWII, only 1 in 8 Vietnam veterans who began some form of college education actually finished with a degree.  The reason for this low rate has been hypothesized to stem from the stigma that returning vets faced on college campuses nation-wide, along with the fact that the benefits were worth substantially less than they were before.

So why did Congress let the value of the GI Bill decrease over the years?  Did Vietnam veterans matter less to the American public than WWII veterans did?  And how does this history matter in shaping the current GI Bill?

Stay tuned for my next post to find out the answers…

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