History of the GI Bill

In 1944, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law what has often been called the most significant piece of legislation ever produced by the U.S. government: the GI Bill of Rights, also known as the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act. The Bill had been a long time coming.

World War I

When veterans returned to the United States following World War I, they received little more than a $60 allowance and a train ticket home. They faced the challenging task of re-assimilating into the civilian workforce, which was made even more difficult by the onset of the Great Depression.

Congress attempted to assist the veterans of the Great War by passing the Adjusted Compensation Act of 1924, more commonly known as the Bonus Act. The law provided a bonus to veterans based on the number of days they had served. However, there was a catch: most veterans would not receive a penny of the bonus until 20 years later.

World War II

By the time the United States found itself deeply entrenched in the next World War, it was widely acknowledged that something had to be done to help returning veterans successfully integrate into civilian life. The government wished to avoid the missteps following World War I.

Harry Colmery

In 1943, the National Commander of the American Legion wrote to Harry Colmery, a World War I Air Force veteran and former National Commander of the Legion, asking if he would serve on a committee to explore potential benefits for veterans following World War II. Colmery joined the committee and, in 1943, drafted the GI Bill of Rights.

The Bill Becomes Law

The GI Bill almost died when Senate and House members came together to debate their versions. Both groups supported the higher education assistance and home loan benefits it offered, but they were divided on its unemployment provision. The agreed upon law was signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on June 22, 1944; he stated that it gave “emphatic notice to the men and women in our armed forces that the American people do not intend to let them down.”

The Original GI Bill

The original GI Bill guaranteed veterans:

  • $300 in “mustering out” pay
  • Financial assistance for higher education and training
  • A weekly unemployment allowance of $20 for 52 weeks
  • Federally-guaranteed loans of up to $2,000 at four percent interest

Due in large part to the GI Bill, millions of World War II veterans chose to pursue higher education. Just three years later, in 1947, veterans accounted for 49 percent of college admissions. By the time the original GI Bill expired on July 25, 1956, 7.8 million of the 16 million World War II veterans had participated in an education or training program. Higher education and home ownership, once unattainable dreams for most Americans, had become a reality for veterans.

Changes to the Bill

This “golden age” of higher education benefits for veterans was short-lived. When veterans returned home after the Korean War, they found that their education benefits had been slashed by the Veterans Adjustment Act of 1952. Under the new law, the government no longer paid tuition directly to colleges and universities; instead, veterans got a flat monthly fee of about $110 from which they were to pay for their education.

By the time the Vietnam War escalated in the 1960s, the payments had decreased, while tuition costs increased. In 1984, Mississippi Congressman Gillespie V. “Sonny” Montgomery revamped and reintroduced the GI Bill, which has been known as the “Montgomery GI Bill” ever since.

The Need for a New Bill

The Montgomery GI Bill gradually lost value, as the costs of higher education continued to rise. While federal assistance programs provided some relief for the general student population, the GI Bill failed to provide similar relief for veterans. The large influx of active duty military personnel following 9/11 served to exacerbate the problem.

Members of Congress recognized the need for a “21st Century GI Bill” that would provide the benefits today’s veterans have earned. During the past three years, Congressional leaders worked to develop a meaningful veterans’ education benefit to meet the needs of our recent veterans.

A New GI Bill is Passed

After months of debate, Congress finally passed a new GI Bill – the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act – which went into effect in August 2009. The new GI Bill significantly expands veterans’ education benefits, offering up to 100 percent tuition and fee coverage at institutions of higher learning, a monthly housing stipend, up to $1,000 annually for books and school supplies, and the option to transfer benefits to one or more immediate family members. And it has made the reality of higher education more attainable than ever for today’s veterans.