College and America: Introduction

In 1944, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, which became commonly known as “the G.I. Bill.” The law was designed with the dual aims of preventing the re-immersion of the United States into economic depression, and simultaneously preventing a revolution of disgruntled former soldiers after the war. It went on to achieve all that and much more, becoming one of the most well-known and revolutionary pieces of American policy ever. Along with some other contributory factors, it is credited with not only preventing a return to the economic conditions of the pre-war Great Depression, but creating more than two decades of extraordinarily strong economic growth. It also had the unexpected, though welcome, effect of sending millions of veterans to college, where they received educations that many, if not most of them could not even have dreamed of before the war. The War Department and Veteran’s Administration conducted studies and surveyed servicemen to estimate how many soon-to-be veterans would be interested in pursuing a college education at the end of war; the results of this investigation informed them that roughly seven to twelve percent, or fewer than 700,000 veterans, would seek full-time college education. As it is now well known, far more than 700,000 veterans went on to take advantage of those benefits. The G.I. Bill resulted in over 2.2 million former servicemen enrolled in college level undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs at a cost to taxpayers of $5.5 billion, or roughly $2500 per veteran, a small price to pay for what turned into decades of overwhelming economic prosperity. This amount would be roughly $33,000 per veteran today. Of these, it is known that a large portion would not have even considered attending college without the assistance. Some studies suggest that up to 20% could not have afforded college without the G.I. Bill. However, original War Department research would suggest even more, as many as 70% of the beneficiaries of the G.I. Bill would not have considered college before its passage. The War Department data should certainly be considered more reliable, as it was exploratory, and taken before the G.I. Bill was in effect, rather than many other studies which only came after-the-fact, whose participants benefited from hindsight.

In short, the G.I Bill was the most bold, aggressive, and successful program the United States has ever pursued to expand higher-education access, and it was a major factor in generating America’s economic prosperity in the decades that followed the Second World War. Rising wealth disparity, stagnation of urban society, violent crime, and high unemployment are all problems which are often blamed on a lack of availability of higher education, or to which increased education is often suggested as a cure. In the political science community, having a more educated workforce is almost universally accepted as a positive. If there is a feasible or beneficial upper limit to how educated a nation’s citizens can or should be, certainly no nation in the history of the world has found that upper limit yet. But to what degree does the level of post-secondary, college education in a country actually affect its political, social, and economic life? Further, would a developed state such as United States be justified in pursuing a policy to massively reduce the costs of post-secondary education to the average student? What policies are available to reduce the cost and increase the availability of higher education? Do the costs of these policies outweigh the benefits? These questions will form one of the core questions of United States domestic policy in the years that come, and will form the core of this series in the weeks that come. As the national economy remains lukewarm at best, and crawls sluggishly from the depths of the recession, and as the world economy continues to become increasingly globalized and intertwined, despite the rhetoric of some Western politicians, domestic economic policy should be centered on finding an “edge” for American companies and workers. With American college graduation rates firmly near the middle of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OCED) countries, with American college enrollment stagnant, with graduation rates in other countries skyrocketing, the availability, affordability, and impact of higher education seems a natural place to start.

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