The GI Bill remains one of the most innovative and disruptive programs in American history. It seems counterintuitive to use words like that to describe a government program, but today we take for granted how different higher education was 70 years ago and how much this simple program changed the face of our nation. Higher education was for the elite. In fact, many universities outright opposed the GI Bill fearing it would add an unsavory element to their Ivy League halls.
Fortunately, veterans back then knew better. After WWI, veterans had to fight for their earned pensions. Thousands forced a march on Washington and camped out in shanty towns called Hoovervilles. Ultimately, those protests ended violently, leaving many in that generation without the care their nation promised them when they went to war. It was these men who had the foresight and guts to prevent this from happening to a new generation.
The GI Bill didn’t just give returning vets job skills, it offered them the opportunity to choose their destiny after coming home. This above all else was the key to successfully transitioning from warrior back to citizen. Not only did the GI Bill put an entire generation of veterans in the driver’s seat of our nation and give them the skills to build the middle class, it also changed the face of higher education. Going to college was no longer only for the elite and wealthy. By the next generation, college became an expectation for many across the country leading to the Higher Education Act that opened up higher education for millions more.
The legacy left by those veterans 70 years ago is alive today in the Post 9/11 GI Bill. Once again, veterans, lead by organizations like IAVA, had to fight government inertia and remind this country that the the best way to help a veteran transition from warrior to citizen is to give them the tools to choose their destiny after coming home from war. Similar to 1944, the fight wasn’t easy. It took the combined efforts of the veteran community with a few brave lawmakers like Jim Webb and John Warner to make the New GI Bill a reality. We were told that it was too expensive or that the idea too big for modern politics. We were told that it would be too complex for the VA to handle or that it would drain the all-volunteer force. But, once again, veterans knew better. IAVA led a coalition of veteran organizations that made it politically impossible to oppose the New GI Bill and in 2008, Congress overwhelmingly passed it.
As with the WWII GI Bill, the fight wasn’t over once the bill got passed. Poor regulation by the VA forced the veteran community once again to improve and expand the GI Bill just as they did back then. Today the fight still continues. In just a few weeks, Congress is expected to pass legislation that forces all schools to treat vets as in-state residents and extend the GI Bill to spouses of the fallen.
In the last few years misuse of the GI Bill has exposed the actions of predatory for-profit schools who, much like after WWII, ruthlessly target veterans for their benefits without giving them an education that they can use. This has lead to a nationwide movement to remove these useless and predatory schools from the market and ensure that students everywhere aren’t falling victim to their scams.
The legacy left to us 70 years ago is still alive and well. Veterans are still shaping our country’s future and the GI Bill continues to transform higher education. Today, over one million new veterans have used the GI Bill; setting the cornerstone for the new greatest generation.