Most Americans today think of higher education as an inalienable right. With more than 4,000 colleges and universities to choose from, virtually every high school graduate who is so inclined can win admission somewhere.
Paving the way for this wide-open access was the GI Bill, part of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944.
Before that historic legislation, higher education was almost entirely the province of the well-to-do. Soon after the law was passed, college came to be seen as a reachable and even necessary goal.
In 1940, less than 5 percent of the U.S. population age 25 or older had completed four years of college. About 24 percent of Americans in that age group hold bachelor’s degrees today.
“The bill made going to college normal rather than exceptional for American young people,” says Charles Moskos, a sociology professor at Northwestern University.
Some 7.8 million World War II veterans took advantage of the GI Bill during the seven years benefits were offered, nearly doubling the college population.
But the law’s greatest legacy was that it provided the same opportunities to every veteran, regardless of the person’s background. “For the first time,” the education historian Diane Ravitch writes in The Troubled Crusade: American Education, 1945 to 1980, “the link between income and educational opportunity was broken.”
Efforts to improve access for women and members of minority groups have challenged additional barriers.
In 1940, women made up 40 percent of U.S. college students. That share dropped to 29 percent in 1947 as a result of the GI Bill, which mostly benefited men. It wasn’t until the mid-1970s, in the era of the women’s liberation movement and the 1972 federal anti-discrimination law known as Title IX, that the number of women in higher education equaled the number of men. Today, women make up a slight majority of college students.
Black students benefited greatly from the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the widespread adoption of affirmative action policies in admissions by the early 1970s. Black enrollment in higher education tripled during the 1960s, from 174,000 to 522,000, then nearly doubled to 1 million by 1976.
A version of this article appeared in the January 27, 1999 edition of Education Week as GI Bill Paved the Way for a Nation of Higher Learners