The early champions of the GI Bill probably never envisioned the
far-reaching impact the landmark legislation would have on American
That millions of World War II veterans and their families would join
the middle class and fuel the largest economic expansion ever probably
did not occur to proponents of the bill. Instead, the GI Bill –
officially known as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 – was
crafted largely to avert social calamity that political leaders feared
would erupt if millions of military personnel returned home to a
Since its enactment, no single public policy has garnered more
credit for the expansion of economic opportunity and higher education.
Signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on June 22, 1944, the GI Bill
paid for vocational training, and college and graduate school tuition
for millions of World War II veterans. It is regarded as one of the
great social experiments of the twentieth century.
U.S. President Bill Clinton, on the fiftieth anniversary of the
signing of the landmark legislation, declared that “the GI Bill
arguably was the greatest investment in our people in American history.
It provided the undergirding for what has clearly been the most
successful middle class in all of history.”
Unexpected Benefits for Blacks
Thanks to the first GI Bill, an estimated 2.2 million veterans
received education at colleges and universities in the aftermath of
World War II. A total of 7.8 million veterans, or 50.5 percent of the
World War II veteran population, received training or education under
But other benefits, which were not anticipated by its early
supporters, were the foundation the GI Bill provided for much of
today’s Black middle class and the education of the generation of
African Americans who helped spearhead the civil rights movement.
“The GI Bill was one of the best pieces of legislation ever passed
that has helped young Black males,” says Dr. William Hytche, former
president of the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore. “They used it as
a resource to secure their growth and their future.”
Many prominent African Americans benefitted from the GI Bill,
including Federal District Judge Robert L. Carter, entertainer Harry
Belafonte, and former Massachusetts Senator Edward W. Brooke (see
related news brief on page 11). Dr. Reginald Wilson, a senior scholar
at the American Council on Education, said the bill enabled him to
attend college after leaving the Air Force in 1947.
“The GI Bill was absolutely responsible for making it possible for
me to go to college,” Wilson says. “My family was very poor before the
war, and even after the war.”
According to Wilson, two champions of the GI Bill were not
considered friendly to the aspirations of African Americans.
Mississippi Congressman John Rankin, an avowed segregationist, and
Senator Bennett Champ Clark, an anti-New Deal Democrat, “were among the
unlikely and deeply conservative sponsors of the most revolutionary and
racially empowering piece of legislation to affect American higher
education in the twentieth century.” In fact, it fell to Rankin to
argue in Congress that veterans should select and attend the higher
education institutions of their choice rather than letting the colleges
control and administer the funding.
Catalyst for Change in Higher Education
Initially, the GI Bill paid for veterans’ tuition, fees, books, and
supplies, up to $500 a year, plus a monthly living allowance of $50 for
an unmarried veteran and $75 for married veterans, according to Keith
Olson, a history professor at the University of Maryland. The precedent
set by the GI Bill’s funding of individuals would late,’ serve as a
model for federal student loan and grant plans, such as the Pell Grant
The GI Bill is also credited with planting the seeds for the
development of adult and continuing education systems, which have
evolved at colleges and universities over the past half-century.
The bill greatly expanded the population of African Americans
attending college and graduate school. In 1940, enrollment at Black
colleges was 1.08 percent of the total U.S. college enrollment; in
1950, it was 3.6 percent, according to the Biennial Survey of
Education, 1948-1950. Overall enrollment in Black Land Grant colleges,
according to a 1948 edition of The Journal of Negro Education,
increased by 50 percent between the beginning of the war and the
African American enrollment also soared at predominantly White
colleges in the north, midwest and the west after passage of the bill.
ACE’s Wilson said Black enrollment expanded from less than one percent
of the student body to tipwards of five percent at some schools. In
Wilson’s estimation, during the late 1940s at his alma mater, Wayne
State University in Detroit, Blacks constituted roughly 15 percent of
the student population.
Coinciding with the GI Bill was the Lanham Act of 1946, federal
legislation which funded the improvement and expansion of historically
Black colleges and universities. Black public institutions in the South
had traditionally been underfunded when compared to historically White
institutions. Black schools, in great need of repair and expansion
following World War II, received federal funding tinder the Lanham Act
at a rate of 33.4 square feet per veteran for new construction while
White schools received construction funding for 17.4 square feet per
veteran, according to The Journal of Negro Education.
City University of New York Graduate Center administrator Dr. Roscoe
C. Brown Jr., a former Tuskegee Airman, said GI benefits allowed him to
pursue a master’s and a doctorate degree full-time at New York
University while supporting his family during the late 1940s. According
to Brown, the majority of African Americans earning degrees as a result
of GI Bill benefits secured jobs in teaching and the civil service.
(see Last Word, pg. 80)
While many occupations remained closed to Blacks through the end of
the 1960s, the expansion of Blacks in education and the civil service
led to a substantial increase in the size of the Black middle class,
Subsequent GI Bills
The federal government also established GI Bills for veterans of the
Korean War and the post-Korean War period, which included benefits for
veterans who served in the Vietnam War. A modest educational assistance
program, the Veterans Educational Assistance Program (VEAP) was created
during the 1970s as an incentive for young people to enlist in the
armed services. The latter GI Bill programs, however, offered fewer
benefits in comparison to those available to World War II veterans.
Dr. Henry W. Pugh, an Air Force veteran of the Korean War, used
Korean War GI Bill benefits to earn undergraduate and graduate degrees
in psychology and education. Pugh, who is Dean of Student Activities at
Southwestern College in Chula Vista, Ca., pursued academic studies
during his twenty-year career in the Air Force. After leaving the
military in the early 1970s, Pugh earned two additional graduate
“The World War and Korean War GI Bill benefits were considerable in
comparison to what was available for Vietnam veterans and others,” Pugh
Hytche, who used Korean War GI Bill benefits to earn a master’s
degree at Oklahoma State University, says he was inspired as an
undergraduate by the World War II veterans whom he had met while
attending Langston University in the 1940s.
“I learned from those guys that you have to take advantage of any resource that comes your way,” Hytche says.
Despite cuts in post-service benefits since the Korean War,
education benefits have been used to shape the All Volunteer Force into
a better educated and motivated fighting force. Charles Moskos and John
Sibley Butler, authors of All That We Can Be: Black Leadership and
Racial Integration the Army Way have written that “recruitment policies
were redirected away from enlistment bonuses toward an emphasis on
post-service educational benefits. This development was capped by
enactment of the Montgomery GI Bill in 1985. The new enlistment
incentives turned the Army around.”
The Post-Cold War Period
Revival of the GI Bill under the Montgomery plan has provided an
important resource for veterans in the post-Cold War downsizing of the
military. Since the late 1980s, overall active duty enlistment has
fallen from 2.1 million to 1.5 million in 1995. The numbers of African
Americans in military service have declined at a comparable rate from
450,000 in 1989 to 300,000 in 1995.
More recently, the efforts to establish a national service program
have found encouraging models in the GI Bills. It is believed that a
national service program modeled after the GI Bill would have similar
transformative effects that the landmark World War II legislation
Moskos and Butler have argued that a comprehensive national service
program for youth, such as President Clinton’s AmeriCorps initiative,
can “provide most of the racial benefits now furnished by the armed
forces.” AmeriCorps, the national service program established by the
Clinton Administration, provides educational benefits to participants
after they complete a civilian service program.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com
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