Officially the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, the G.I. Bill was created to help veterans of World War II. It established hospitals, made low-interest mortgages available and granted stipends covering tuition and expenses for veterans attending college or trade schools. From 1944 to 1949, nearly 9 million veterans received close to $4 billion from the bill’s unemployment compensation program. The education and training provisions existed until 1956, while the Veterans’ Administration offered insured loans until 1962. The Readjustment Benefits Act of 1966 extended these benefits to all veterans of the armed forces, including those who had served during peacetime.
The assimilation of World War I veterans back to civilian life didn’t go well. With so many men flooding the labor market, many couldn’t make ends meet, even with help from government programs.
Congress stepped in and passed the Bonus Act of 1924, which promised veterans a bonus based on number of days served. But it wouldn’t be paid until 1945, almost 20 years later, much too late to help countless struggling veterans.
By 1932, during the Great Depression, around 20,000 frustrated veterans—known as Bonus Marchers—marched on the Capitol in Washington, D.C., demanding their bonus money.
The government didn’t capitulate, though, and President Herbert Hoover sent the Army to get them out, a move which pitted soldier against veteran. The confrontation would be an integral turning point in the crusade for veteran’s rights.
The GI Bill is born
President Franklin D. Roosevelt was determined to do better for veterans returning from World War II. He also wanted to expand the middle class and help prevent economic turmoil.
He started preparing for the veterans’ return well in advance of the end of the war. Congress tossed around various ideas, but they limited benefits to veterans who met specific criteria such as income.
It was former American Legion National Commander and Republican National Chairman, Harry W. Colmery, who proposed extending benefits to all World War II veterans, male or female. His proposal became the first draft of the GI Bill.
The bill went to Congress in January 1944 as the war still raged along the European and Pacific fronts. It was hotly debated in both Congressional houses but finally approved in mid-June. President Roosevelt signed the GI Bill into law on June 22, 1944.
GI Bill Benefits
The GI Bill gave World War II servicemen and servicewoman many options and benefits. Those who wished to continue their education in college or vocation school could do so tuition-free up to $500 while also receiving a cost of living stipend.
As a result, almost 49 percent of college admissions in 1947 were veterans. The GI Bill opened the door of higher education to the working class in a way never done before.
The bill provided a $20 weekly unemployment benefit for up to one year for veterans looking for work. Job counseling was also available.
The government guaranteed loans for veterans who borrowed money to purchase a home, business or farm. These loans enabled hordes of people to abandon city life and move to mass-produced, “cookie cutter” homes in suburbia. This exodus from major cities would help shape America’s socioeconomic and political landscape for years to come.
Medical care for veterans was also provided in the GI Bill. Additional hospitals were established for veterans and the Veterans Administration took over all veteran-related concerns.
By 1956, almost 10 million veterans had received GI Bill benefits.
The GI Bill and Discrimination
Although the GI Bill extended benefits to all veterans regardless of gender or race, it was easier for some people to collect than others. In many cases, benefits were administered by an all-white Veterans Administration at the state and local level.
In an era of rampant racial and gender discrimination, African Americans and women struggled to receive higher education or loans. In some southern states, they were steered to menial jobs instead of college.
Even if an African American received tuition money, their choices were slim since many colleges were segregated, especially in the southern states. African American veterans in the North fared somewhat better but still didn’t receive a higher education in numbers anywhere near their white peers. College choices for women were also slim since men almost always received enrollment preference.
The discrimination didn’t end with education. Local banks in the south often refused to lend money to African Americans to buy a home, even with the government backing the loan. And many of America’s new, suburban neighborhoods prohibited African American’s from moving in. As a result, many African Americans remained in the cities as whites flocked to the suburbs.
Post-9/11 GI Bill
Mississippi Representative G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery proposed legislation in 1984 to make the GI Bill permanent. It insured that veterans of the Vietnam War could receive higher education.
The Montgomery GI Bill is still in action today. It’s an opt-in program which offers help to veterans and service members with at least two years active duty. It also provides benefits to those in the Selected Reserve who meet specific criteria.
In 2008, Congress passed the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act, also called the Post-9/11 GI Bill. It gives veterans on active duty on September 11, 2001 or after greater educational benefits. It also allows them to transfer unused educational benefits to their spouse or kids.
Forever GI Bill
In 2017, President Donald Trump signed the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act, also called the Forever GI Bill, into law. The bill further expanded veterans’ educational benefits by:
- eliminating the 15-year limitation on Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits for eligible veterans and their dependents
- authorizing certain work-study programs
- offering the VetSuccess on Campus program, a vocational rehabilitation program, to students across the country
- offering veterans priority enrollment educational counseling
- offering Reservists who lost eligibility under the Reserve Educational Assistance Program (REAP) credit towards the Post-9/11 GI Bill program
The GI Bill played an integral role in shaping post-World War II America. It enabled hundreds of thousands of men and women to get a higher education, many of whom could never have afforded it otherwise.
The bill also helped build America’s middle class, although it left many minority veterans behind. It’s been decades since President Roosevelt signed the first GI Bill, yet it continues to empower and enable veterans and their families to reach their goals.
Black and white veterans and the GI Bill. Dartmouth College.
But not all Americans benefitted equally. American Psychological Association.
Education and Training: History and Timeline. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
GI Bill History. The American Legion.
The GI Bill. Khan Academy.
Veterans of Foreign Wars. PBS.
History of the GI Bill. American RadioWorks.
H.R.5740 – Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008. Congress.gov.
Forever GI Bill – Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.