ST. LOUIS — FIFTY years ago, William Horridge served his country in World War II and was repaid with a bargain he has never forgotten: a college education through the GI Bill.
``A lot of us simply would not have been able to go to school without the bill,'' Mr. Horridge says. ``The government paid for everything - books and all your tuition - plus $75 of spending money a month. It was fantastic.''
Five decades after President Franklin Roosevelt signed the GI Bill of Rights into law, Americans are still learning about its legacy.
``It is probably the greatest untold story of American history, certainly of the 20th century,'' says Michael Bennett, a Washington journalist who is writing a book on the history of the GI Bill.
The series of government programs established by the original GI Bill, signed into law on June 22, 1944, were designed to help the 12 million soldiers returning from World War II readjust to civilian life. Veterans were offered mortgage subsidies that spurred home buying and helped create America's suburbs.
The educational benefits offered under the GI Bill completely transformed American higher education. Veterans were offered a free education at any college that would accept them.
``It worked through what we now refer to as vouchers,'' Mr. Bennett says. ``Your full tuition and fees would be paid at any college of your choice.''
Bennett says it was ``an enormous act of faith, going against the perceived wisdom of even the most liberal educators of the time.'' Before passage of the GI Bill, only 10 percent of high school graduates went on to college. The new legislation paved the way for any veteran to go to college, regardless of social, cultural, or ethnic background.
Begining of era
``This was the beginning of the era when it became normal to go to college, rather than abnormal,'' says John MacArthur, who attended the University of Chicago on the GI Bill. ``Before that time, you got your high school diploma, and a few people went on to college.''
Many educators at elite institutions failed to see the potential of the GI Bill. Robert Hutchins, then-president of the University of Chicago, wrote a magazine article titled ``The Threat to American Education,'' in which he warned that the bill would turn the nation's colleges into ``educational hobo jungles.'' Harvard University President James Conant also argued that the bill would bring in students who were not qualified to benefit from college. Despite these predictions, many veterans turned out to be excellent students. More mature and experienced than the typical college student of the day, they evinced discipline and intellectual curiosity.
By 1948, 68 percent of the undergraduates on American campuses were veterans. The number of degrees conferred by American universities and colleges more than doubled between 1940 and 1950.
American colleges were swamped with students, and many new institutions were founded to handle the influx of students. In 1947, Walter Hendricks returned after running a ``university without walls'' in France for GIs waiting for transport home. He established Marlboro College on his farm in Vermont. The college's first graduating classes were made up mostly of returning soldiers studying on the GI Bill. They helped build the college from the ground up, converting barns and sheds into dorms and classrooms.
Although the flood of new college students lasted only four or five years, the newly established institutions began recruiting to fill academia's expanded capacity.
``It really transformed the country,'' Bennett says. ``The Marxist assumption that there are two classes - the bourgeois and the proletariat - just quietly disappeared while no one noticed it.
The societal changes sparked by the GI Bill would undoubtedly have happened over time, says Kathryn Ratcliff, a professor of American studies at Marlboro College. But passage of the legislation accelerated the change, she says.
``There's really no question that the educational advantages provided new upward mobility for groups that previously had not been able to take advantage of education as a kind of steppingstone to the American dream,'' Professor Ratcliff says.
In 50 years, the GI Bill has helped more than 20 million Americans get an education. ``With the stroke of his pen on June 22, 1944, President Roosevelt gave us a prudent and profitable domestic program, some would say the most important of the 20th century,'' says Rep. G.V. Montgomery (D) of Mississippi, sponsor of the current Montgomery GI Bill and chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee.
Congress passed several other versions of the GI Bill. After the Korean and Vietnam wars, veterans received educational stipends, but not full tuition. The Montgomery GI Bill, which passed in 1987, is a recruiting incentive for the all-volunteer military. Under the program, participants agree to a $1,200 pay reduction spread over a year in exchange for educational benefits worth nearly $15,000.
One out of 10 recruits enrolls in the program, according to a report released early this year.
``In survey after survey of America's youth, money for college ranks as one of the top reasons for interest in the military,'' says Lt. Gen. Thomas Carney, deputy chief of staff for Army personnel. ``It's not as good as the original GI Bill,'' General Horridge says. ``But it still gives a guy who wants an education the chance to go to college.