GI Bill's Impact Slipping in Recent Years

At the end of World War II, the GI Bill helped create a new "middle class" in America, allowing those who served a chance for an education. The bill's legacy is still tangible, but today the funds it offers barely meet veterans' expenses.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Today's men and women in uniform can only dream of the kinds of benefits an earlier generation once counted on. At the end of World War II, the GI Bill essentially gave birth to a new middle class in America by allowing those who served a chance to get a home and an education.

More than half a century later, the GI bill's legacy is still visible, as NPR's John McChesney reports.

JOHN McCHESNEY: The World War II bill paid full tuition at any school you could get into - Harvard, Yale, or a small state college. On top of that, it paid for your books and provided a relatively generous living stipend.

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, a sergeant at the end of the war, attended Harvard on the GI Bill, along with almost 10 million ex-soldiers who received either a college education or job training.

Author Ed Humes wrote a book about the GI Bill entitled "Over Here."

Mr. ED HUMES (Author, "Over Here"): The landscape before the GI Bill, college was an elite bastion. It wasn't even on the radar screens of the guys who went off to war or the middle class in general. In fact, the middle class didn't really exist as we know it today.

McCHESNEY: Fewer than five percent of Americans had college degrees in 1945. Only two-fifths of the soldiers had finished high school. Humes says the GI Bill upended those figures and that the achievements for GI Bill graduates are staggering.

Mr. HUMES: Fourteen Nobel Prize winners went to school on a GI Bill. Three Supreme Court justices, three presidents, a dozen senators, several of whom are still in office, two dozen Pulitzer Prize winners, 238,000 teachers, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 doctors, I'm rounding off here.

McCHESNEY: And the list goes on. Former Senators Bob Dole and George McGovern have said that the GI Bill was what put the great in what's been dubbed the greatest generation.

During World War II, Senator McGovern flew 35 missions in B-24 bombers and received the Distinguished Flying Cross. He already had three years of college when he signed up.

Mr. GEORGE McGOVERN (Former Democratic Senator, South Dakota): So I finished up at Dakota Wesleyan on the GI Bill. And then I went to Chicago and enrolled at Northwestern University and went all the way through to a Ph.D. in history. I must say that GI Bill changed my life. It broadened my understanding of the world, and it increased my self-confidence. It literally just changed my life for the better.

McCHESNEY: McGovern says that in spite of the big initial outlay of money, the government made money on the program.

Mr. McGOVERN: Why? It cost approximately $10 billion, but the 10 million GIs that went through the GI Bill in increased their earning power. It more than paid for the GI Bill in the increased income taxes.

McCHESNEY: According to some estimates, in today's dollars, it cost $50 billion and returned $350 billion to the economy - a nearly sevenfold increase in the national economy.

By 1947, fully half of the nation's college students had their living expenses paid by the GI Bill. Presidents of elite colleges had initially deplored the bill, saying that it would dilute the high standards of education by enrolling the least qualified. But they soon changed their tune as enrollments skyrocketed and the money rolled in.

And it wasn't just conventional institutions that benefited from the GI Bill.

Mr. McGOVERN: The marvelous thing about the GI Bill was that you could go to any school anywhere in the world, and they would respond positively to that.

McCHESNEY: Film director Arthur Penn, the son of a watchmaker, did exactly that. He went to a small, experimental school in North Carolina called Black Mountain, and then went on to the University of Florence to study Italian Renaissance poetry. Among many accomplishments, Penn directed "Bonnie and Clyde," released in 1967.

Mr. ARTHUR PENN (Film Director): I was just dead broke when the war ended.

McCHESNEY: College, he says, was...

Mr. PENN: ...simply not anything I thought of prior to this, because I - when I was drafted into the Army, I had just come out of high school, maybe a year and a half before. So I couldn't contemplate going to college then. And by this point, it seemed not a really reasonable option.

McCHESNEY: But someone at Black Mountain said he could get the GI Bill. And there, he mingled with people who were to become renowned figures in American art, dance, architecture and music.

Mr. PENN: Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Willem de Kooning - it was just an extraordinary place.

McCHESNEY: Penn thinks that the present GI Bill - which in most cases barely meets the expenses of many community colleges today - needs to be brought into conformity with the generosity of the World War II Bill.

Mr. PENN: They deserve the full benefits that accrued to them from one day under - in combat. It's not a pretty experience.

McCHESNEY: New legislation is in the pipeline on both sides of Capitol Hill. One bill, sponsored by Virginia Senator Jim Webb, comes close to replicating the World War II Bill.

John McChesney, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, we'll hear more about proposals to help veterans pay for college, plus stories of why some of them are struggling.

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