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The G.I. Bill at 75

The legislation transformed America and higher education. Here's how it continues to provide opportunity for generations of vets and their families.

June 6, 2019

By Cory Phare

Happy 75th birthday, post-World War II American prosperity.

On June 22, the country celebrates three-quarters of a century of the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944 – better known as the G.I. Bill of Rights. The landmark legislation signed by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt provided returning World War II veterans access to unemployment compensation, low-interest home loans and – perhaps most transformative – funding for education. 

By expanding economic opportunity and helping U.S. military veterans transition to civilian life, the G.I. Bill impacted millions of individuals and families and is widely credited with being a key contributor in creating the American middle class, said Theodora Kulkoski, public affairs officer for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Colorado and Wyoming region

“The G.I. Bill is one of the most significant pieces of legislation ever produced by the federal government,” she said. “(It) made higher education a possibility for millions of families that otherwise may not have been able to afford it.” 

Franklin Delano Roosevelt signing the original GI Bill. Photo courtesy the Denver Public Library

The evolution of the G.I. Bill

• The original G.I. Bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on Jan. 10, 1944, making its way to the U.S. Senate the following day. Republican National Chairman and National Commander of the American Legion Harry Colmery is credited as progenitor of the legislation, capturing its concepts on hotel stationary and a napkin.

• After some inter-chamber debate over unemployment benefits, the bill passed the Senate on June 12, 1944 and the House followed on June 14. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who signed it into law June 22, 1944.

• By the original G.I. Bill’s end date of July 25, 1956, nearly half of the 16 million returning World War II veterans had taken advantage of training or educational benefits.

• 1984 saw an updated version of the legislation led by former Mississippi Democratic Rep. Gillespie V. "Sonny" Montgomery. The Montgomery G.I. Bill, as it came to be known, extended benefits to Vietnam veterans and is still available today as an opt-in program available in two formats for active duty and selected reserve/national guard members.

• The Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008, or Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, further extended educational benefits to active-duty personnel relative to number of days served. Expanded resources include money for living expenses and books.

• The Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017, otherwise known as the Forever G.I. Bill, further expands resources to veterans and family members. One of the highest-profile impacts is the removal of the 15-year education benefit window imposed by the Post-9/11 bill.


Generational impact

The G.I. Bill was born from President Roosevelt’s determination to provide soldiers returning home from World War II more support than was given veterans of what was then known as The Great War. The author of the New Deal also wanted to prevent economic turmoil similar to that which followed World War I and eventually spiraled into the Great Depression. The original legislation extended $500 in college or vocational training benefits to soldiers along with a cost-of-living stipend.

RELATED: Into the trenches of WWI

The effect was seismic, throwing open the doors of academia and laying the foundation for a massive expansion of the American middle class. By 1947, 49% of admitted college students were veterans; by the mid-1950s, the legislation had made college accessible for close to 10 million service members.

While the G.I. Bill rightly conjures images of the Greatest Generation and America’s post-World War II economic boom, subsequent updates to the legislation (see sidebar) have allowed its spirit to drive public investment in education. In fact, nearly 25,000 Colorado veterans used their education benefits in 2018, Kulkoski said.

Count Carlos Nevares III among them. The U.S. Marine Corps veteran and Metropolitan State University of Denver student said his educational benefits have been a gateway to transformative opportunity.

“(The G.I. Bill) affected millions of veterans’ lives – mine included – and it has been an incredible investment for an economic boost,” said Nevares, who is also a Veterans Administration work-study student. “If there wasn’t a G.I. Bill, the country would be in a way worse place.”

Those updates to the legislation also extend opportunity to the families of veterans, including Gold Star Wife Erika Wyckoff, whose husband U.S. Army Sgt. Charles E. Wyckoff Jr. was killed June 6, 2007 while on patrol in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

Now finishing her individualized degree program in holistic approaches to human welfare and wellness at MSU Denver, Wyckoff has utilized the Fry Scholarship, which provides tuition assistance to spouses and children of fallen service members who were killed in service after Sept. 10, 2001.

“The Fry Scholarship is available to us because our loved one paid the ultimate sacrifice,” she said. “When we approach graduation and completion of our education, we will have honored him by fulfilling his wishes that we live on and live happy.”

RELATED: Gold Star Wife Erika Wyckoff balances family, school and a quest for a Medal of Honor

Color guard preparing to present the American and Colorado flag at the 2019 MSU Denver Veteran
Color guard preparing to present the American and Colorado flag at the 2019 MSU Denver Veteran's Graduation Ceremony held May 16 in St. Cajetan's. Photo by Alyson McClaran

Mobilizing knowledge 

After he finishes his degree, Nevares plans to become a social studies teacher. There is a logical connection between the military and education, he said.

“The Marine Corps is steeped in the study of history,” Nevares said. “Every Marine can tell you when the organization’s birthday is, the first Commandant and who’s the most-decorated.”

(For the record, the respective answers are: Nov. 10, 1775; Samuel Nichols; and Lewis Burwell “Chesty” Puller, who received five Navy crosses and one Army Distinguished Service Cross.)

More than a list of facts, however, the military’s reverence for history is about the mobilization of knowledge to build a better future, one that a comprehensive liberal arts education is equipped to provide.

“We study war so we can prevent it,” MSU Denver President Janine Davidson, Ph.D., said remarks at a recent veterans' ceremony. Davidson is former undersecretary of the U.S. Navy and herself a U.S. Air Force veteran – and the first woman to fly a C-130.

“In that regard, one way to honor those who came before us is to take a history class; to take a political science and anthropology class.”

RELATED: Why study the humanities?

“Bottom line, (this legislation) has affected the lives of millions of vets and their families; I’m in awe of it all... Without the G.I. Bill, I wouldn’t be here.” Carlos Nevares addresses attendees at the recent MSU Denver veteran
“Bottom line, (this legislation) has affected the lives of millions of vets and their families; I’m in awe of it all... Without the G.I. Bill, I wouldn’t be here.” Carlos Nevares addresses attendees at the recent MSU Denver veteran's graduation ceremony. Photo by Alyson McClaran

There’s an inherent human tendency to understand ourselves through others, to glean insight from the trials and tribulations of different experiences, Nevares said.

“As Marines, we look back to understand the past, identifying who to emulate and learn from,” he said. “Education helps facilitate this – we see character traits from the past and ask ourselves, ‘Who do I want to be? Who can I be? Who will I be tomorrow – and today?’”

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