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GI Bill

Public Higher Education Superstar

Colin Powell, enrolled in the City College of New York Army ROTC program in 1954 and graduated in 1958. He rose through the ranks to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and later served as secretary of state.

University of South Dakota women's archery squad, c. 1930.

The passage of the G.I. Bill in 1944 set off an explosion in higher education. It provided veterans with generous financial aid for tuition and living expenses. By 1947, 49% of all college students were veterans and nearly half of the 16 million eligible veterans had used the G.I. Bill for higher education or job training when it ended in 1956.

The G.I. Bill changed the face of the United States, creating access to education for millions of Americans and helping to spawn the modern middle class. But this increased opportunity was not universal. Many African-American veterans could not attend college because of their sub-standard Jim Crow primary and secondary educations. Those with high school diplomas were largely limited to overcrowded and under-funded historically black colleges and universities that often lacked the liberal arts education available at predominantly white institutions.

Women also faced many barriers. Of the 350,000 World War II women veterans, only 2.9% attended college on the G.I. Bill. Many women did not know they were eligible and post-war culture and social policy encouraged and/or forced women out of the workplace, stressing their roles as homemakers, wives, and mothers.

The G.I. Bill has been renewed numerous times since 1944, most recently in 2008. It set a precedent for a strong federal role in financing higher education. Starting in 1964 as part of the Civil Rights Act, the federal government has offered financial aid to underserved students to make higher education affordable and more accessible. A high-water mark of this trend was the 1972 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which included Pell Grants and numerous student work-study and loan programs.

This huge influx of students has changed the balance between private and public institutions. Before the G.I. Bill, enrollment was split 50-50, but public colleges and universities absorbed most of the new students. Today about 80% of all college students attend public schools.

Student with wife and child in on-campus housing in post-World War II University of Maryland, c. 1946.
Pamphlet prepared by the American Historical Association for the U.S. Army to help prepare the nation for the post-war world, 1944.
Students entering the G.I. Village at The Ohio State University, 1946.
World War II veteran Manuel Duran, 80, second from right, cheers with other veterans at Central New Mexico Community College as they receive their certificates of high school, 2007.
Windcrest Trailer Park at Penn State University housed returning World War II veterans and their families, c. 1946.