The G.I. Bill Turns 70

Seventy years ago this past Sunday, Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the Servicemen’s Adjustment Act of 1944. While World War II still had over ten months to go in Europe, and over a year in the Pacific, the so-called “G.I. Bill” made possible dramatic changes in postwar America. Pres. Barack Obama summarized them — including the bill’s impact on his family history — in a June 20 op-ed:

For some eight million World War II veterans, the original GI Bill meant the chance to realize a college education, get on-the-job training or buy their first home.  They became teachers and small business owners, doctors and nurses, engineers and scientists.  One of them was my grandfather.  A soldier in Patton’s Army, he came home, went to college on the GI Bill and raised his family.  In his later years he helped raise me, too.

The GI Bill also transformed America.  With the careers it sparked, the homes it helped our veterans buy, and the prosperity it generated, it paid for itself several times over and helped lay the foundation for the largest middle class in history.

The government-backed loans that let over two million veterans buy homes shouldn’t be overlooked, but without question the most famous provisions of the original G.I. Bill were those that helped pay for college. ($500 per year in tuition, about $6800 in 2014 dollars, plus a living allowance.) While less than 10% of the nation’s 4 million WWI veterans had gone to college after 1918, about half of the men and women who served in the military during WWII took advantage of the G.I. Bill’s educational benefits.

The majority of the 7.8 million veterans-turned-students actually used their benefits for vocational training, not to attend college or university. Still, the effect on higher education was extraordinary. In December 1941, there were 1.25 million college and university students in the United States. By the end of the 1940s, that figure had doubled to 2.5 million. There were other factors in the post-WWII explosion of higher education (e.g., the broader expansion of federal and state financial aid), but none had as dramatic or rapid an effect as the G.I. Bill. By 1947, there were already 1.1 million veterans enrolled in institutions of higher learning, accounting for nearly 50% of the entire student population.

In Minnesota it only took a year after the war for veterans to account for the majority of the state’s 48,500 undergraduates. About two-thirds of those beneficiaries of the G.I. Bill attended the University of Minnesota, but private colleges made gains as well. Their total enrollment in fall 1948 (15,000) was 67% higher than what it had been before the war started.

Such growth was one reason that Bethel College launched its four-year program in 1947, with 160 veterans among its 440 students. (A similar percentage of Seminary students had served in the military.)

Cover of the July-August 1945 "G.I. Number" of the Bethel Bulletin

The cover of the July-August 1945 “G.I. Number” of the Bethel Bulletin. (We’re not quite to the point of digitizing documents, so this and the next image are just old-fashioned snapshots I took in the library…)

The school hadn’t wasted any time trying to take advantage of the G.I. Bill. The July-August 1945 issue of the Bethel Bulletin was a four-page ad primarily targeted at returning veterans from the school’s supporting denomination — which had just dropped “Swedish” from its name:

Halt! You G.I.’s in the armed forces from the [Baptist] General Conference, as well as others in the armed forces who might be interested, stop and consider what BETHEL has to offer returning service men and women.

A Q&A section addressed the details of G.I. Bill funding, Bethel president Henry Wingblade added his greetings,  and college dean Emery Johnson promised that

Individuals who register at Bethel will find a widened offering of courses, a balanced program of religious and extra-curricular activities, accredited curricula, and an opportunity for personal development. The future for the nations and for individuals is found in the Christian Way of Life. At Bethel the Christian Way of Life is the vital part of the school work.

Cartoon of a G.I. reading the Bethel student newspaper, The Clarion

The rather bookish cartoon character that recurs throughout the Bulletin’s G.I. Bill-themed July/August 1945 issue – reading an issue of Bethel’s student newspaper beneath the exhortation from Emery Johnson

An updated version of the G.I. Bill still assists veterans in continuing their education. Those attending Bethel nowadays are not only eligible for G.I. Bill aid, but can receive “Yellow Ribbon” matching grants from Bethel and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (Last year U.S. News & World Report named Bethel the 7th best college for veterans in its peer group.)

Did you attend Bethel after serving in the military? What was it like to be a veteran on campus? Please share your story in the Comments section below, or e-mail us — your feedback will help us greatly as we develop the final “Bethel at War” project!

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2 comments

  1. […] assimilation within the Dutch-American constituency of Calvin College. Today I marked the recent 70th anniversary of the G.I. Bill and shared some Bethel literature from mid-1945 that was meant to recruit servicemen and […]

  2. […] 11/11/14 – I was happy to be interviewed for today’s Star Tribune article about the 70th anniversary of the G.I. Bill and its impact on Minnesotan colleges and universities. You can learn more about that landmark legislation and what it meant for schools like Bethel at our Bethel at War blog. […]

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