From GI Joe to Joe College- How The GI Bill Changed College Forever

A four-year college education was not always a right of passage upon graduating High School. Once upon a time college along with home ownership was a privilege reserved for the rich.

It took a war to kick start college education for the masses in America.

It was the returning WWII soldiers of the Greatest Generation and the government’s groundbreaking GI bill guaranteeing an education to all returning veterans that changed the ivy-covered, rarefied world of college forever, opening up exclusive campuses for the average American.

For the first time in our history, the once unreachable dream of a college education became attainable for all.

Help For Our Soldiers

If you went to war for the U.S. before World War II, you were left to your own devices for education, housing, and job training when you returned to civilian life.

During World War II, U.S. leaders realized that nearly 16 million American men and women who were serving in the armed forces would be unemployed when the war finally ended and that this could cause another depression and widespread economic instability similar to the aftereffects of the 1929 stock market crash. To prevent that, experts studied the issue and recommended a series of education and training programs.

On Jan. 10, 1944, Congress passed the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944. President Franklin Roosevelt signed it into law June 22, just over two weeks after the Allied invasion of Normandy. It was dubbed the GI Bill of Rights because it offered federal aid to help veterans buy homes, get jobs and pursue an education, and in general helped them to adjust to civilian life again.

The assistance the bill provided for tuition, books, supplies, counseling services and a living allowance caused postwar college attendance to jump exponentially. It also kept millions of vets from flooding the job market all at one time.

Returning Vets -Headed For History

It was 1946. The war in Europe had ended 8 months earlier, the Pacific theater five. By the thousands, overcrowded transport ships and transcontinental Pullmans crawled across the continent delivering war-weary soldiers back to their loved ones. Now that they were back home for keeps, the moment everyone dreamed of was here-the long deferred American Dream.

For today, tomorrow, and always.

Books and Bonuses

By 1947 the shape of college campuses all across the country was suddenly altered.

Through his financial assistance, Uncle Sam brought a college education to within reach of millions of persons who otherwise would have gone directly into trades or blue-collar jobs.

Now, a sheepskin diploma was one more component of that American Dream.

Would You have come without GI Bill aid- part of a series of polls Life magazine took of WWII veteran students in 1947

Under the GI Bill, The Veterans Administration paid the university up to $500 a year for tuition, books and other training costs and vets received a small allowance while in school.

Armies of American veterans were now streaming into colleges, their little gold discharge buttons winking gaily from their coat lapels, wedging themselves into colleges which hadn’t done any building since 1941.

The results were like trying to pack 2 pounds of sardines into a 1pound tin.

The changes they brought were visible, as trailer camps, Quonset huts, and rows of temporary barracks were set up on campus. Classrooms were so crowded that classes started at 7:30 and lasted till 10:30 at night.

It was the biggest and most sudden impact American higher education had ever received; the arrival in force on the campuses of 1,777,000 war veterans, made them 50% of the total college population.

These new students were often above average in grades and educators lamented a return to the old system.

“It is a social wastage to have inferior students with money go to college at the expense of superior students without money,” educators reasoned in an 1947 issue of Life magazine devoted to the veteran student.  Educators were now advocating a permanent system of federal scholarships for students of high intelligence and low means

Assignment:  Male Call

My mother Betty a freshman at the University of Connecticut 1945. Because she was a New Yorker she eventually would have to leave her college to make room for returning vets.

The returning male vets were a welcome sight to Betty Coed across college campuses including my own mother Betty a college sophomore at the University of Connecticut.

It was a different campus than the male-deprived war years. Due to the war, co-eds found themselves in the midst of a gen-u-ine –man-shortage, lamenting that…. “they were either too young or too old.”

The absence of an entire generation of men between the ages of 17 and 30 left a lonely void.

During the war years, you had to take what you could get, including men, but by 1946 the colleges all over America were being filled by a boatload of eligible men- a battalion of returning soldiers  taking advantage of the GI Bill.

G-I ( guy interest) was the theme song of colleges now.

Campus Cast-Offs

The shapes of college campuses were being altered all across the county impacting previously enrolled students.

The University of Connecticut like so many swollen schools had to eventually close its doors to out-of-state students to accommodate the swell of new GI enrollment. Branded as “out of staters” they were forced out.

As an out-of-state student,  my mother Betty found herself dislocated along with millions of other college students in the post-war chaos of overcrowded schools.

Sadly she joined the millions of dejected. displaced students pouring out of former Alma maters until they could find a college that would accept them

Big Business

ww2 soldiers returning vets vintage illustration art and advertising

School curriculums were also changing, becoming West Points for Big Business. Fresh from the war the boys had one strategy they wanted to be deployed directly into jobs as second lieutenants with US Steel or Du Pont.

And retire comfortably on a Colonel’s pension forty years later.

Corporations from coast to coast quickly filled with recent college graduates- forward-thinking vets who traded in their khaki uniform for a grey flannel one.

With a firm handshake, they enlisted for life, the golden carrot of retirement loomed in the future like a pot of gold at the end of the work world rainbow.


In just a few generations, those fundamental components of the American dream would vanish like an elusive rainbow after a storm.

As the cost of 4 years of college education escalates between $100,00 and $200,000 we have replicated those pre-WWII times, making college a right of passage for the wealthy.

Saddled with massive student loans, home ownership becomes elusive for today’s graduates, and retirement is just another pie in the sky. With Uncle Sam’s stepping up and offering relief for student loans, some of the once upon time American dream can return




  1. Great essay on an influential piece of history.

    Liked by 1 person

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