A big idea -- the GI Bill -- turns 70

Jun. 22, 2014 @ 12:29 PM

My family benefited from a “big idea.” After dropping out of high school to enlist in the Navy, my grandfather, Leonard “Mac” McLean, returned from the Pacific and enrolled in college.

As one of 10 children from tiny Hot Sulphur Springs, Colorado, attending (and paying for) college was a far-off dream for my grandfather.  The big idea that made a college education possible for him and millions of others was the GI Bill -- enacted 70 years ago Sunday -- which provided the support and investment that veterans needed to move forward after service to the country.

Since 1944, the GI Bill -- and its subsequent iterations following other wars and conflicts -- has offered a wide range of benefits for veterans with a variety of education goals.  Since 2009, more than $40 billion in Post-9/11 GI Bill payments has funded the education of more than 1 million beneficiaries.  It is a classic example of putting tax dollars to work, partnering with other entities (in this case colleges and universities) to do what is right and what is needed.

At Duke, an institution with a proud and long history with the military, veteran students and their dependents are the fastest growing group at the university.  Over the past five years the number of these students has grown more than 400 percent. They’re studying biology and political science; they’re getting MBAs and law degrees; they’re enrolled in our divinity school and our school of nursing.

In addition to government funding, Duke provides special scholarships to veterans through the Yellow Ribbon program.  We do this to say thank you for their service to our nation, and also because we believe having veterans in our classrooms and laboratories improves the education and teaching environment for our entire campus.  Imagine classroom discussions about foreign policy, weapon technology or third-world poverty if the student next to you has served several tours in Iraq or Afghanistan?  That is now a common occurrence not only at Duke, but also at other schools across the country, and our campuses are better because of it.

While it is easy to see the individual benefit of these programs, the societal benefit has been enormous.  College graduates are less likely to depend on public assistance programs as adults, more likely to be home owners, more civically engaged and less likely to be incarcerated.  The GI Bill has given our veterans and their families a path to a world with more options after service, and most would agree that the investment in this human infrastructure is well worth it.

The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (GI Bill) passed both the House and Senate unanimously in the spring of 1944 and was signed into law by President Roosevelt just days after D-Day.  While it is hard to imagine a simple resolution celebrating apple pie passing unanimously in today’s political environment, a bill recently passed the Senate with more than 90 votes that gives veterans access to in-state tuition at public colleges and universities, no matter where they reside.  Perhaps this Big Idea isn’t dead, which is good for all Americans.  

All four of my grandfather’s children and his six grandchildren attended college - - I’m not sure that would have happened if the government hadn’t made that investment in him and transformed his life.  We should use this week’s anniversary as a reminder of what is good and right with our government and encourage policy makers to continue to think BIG.  The GI Bill is BIG and its payoff has been, and will continue to be, monumental.

Christopher Simmons is the associate vice president for federal relations at Duke University.