Forgotten Lessons of the G.I. Bill

March 16, 2012

To those who would say getting more kids into college is a vain or even destructive goal, Jay Mathews offers a handy little history lesson. Today’s nay-sayers sound eerily like critics of the G.I. Bill more than 60 years ago.

Then as now, champions of college did not push a one-size-fits-all notion of college as a four year degree. There were many pathways to prosperity in those days, too. Back then, however, some of those pathways led straight from high school to middle class jobs. No longer. The huge gulf in earnings that divides high school from college grads these days is nothing if not bracing.

Mathews notes that critics deemed the G.I. Bill a failure a year after it passed. Few veterans were using it, which some critics saw as proof that college just isn’t for everyone. Mathews quotes a benighted writer from The Saturday Evening Post: “The guys aren’t buying it. They say ‘education means books’ any way you slice it, and that’s for somebody else.” Others worried that the flood of new people into our colleges and technical schools would simply dilute the student body and lower standards. We’re hearing a similar refrain today.

Instead, about half of U.S. veterans—almost 8 million people—took advantage of the G.I. Bill during its history. Some got 4-year degrees. Many pursued other kinds of post-secondary training. All but the most bull-headed say the surge in college attendance reaped enormous social and economic rewards.

Nay-sayers, take note.