The GI Bill: An anniversary to celebrate

The GI Bill: An anniversary to celebrate

By Phyllis Wise

The 70th anniversary of D-Day deservedly has been a center of attention this month. This commemoration of the Allied invasion at Normandy that began on June 6, 1944, marked a turning point in World War II and has served as a reminder of how much can depend on a single moment in time.

Today, June 22, marks another 70th anniversary from that same war. This one doesn't memorialize a military operation but instead celebrates how we honored those veterans who returned home. Seven decades ago today, Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Servicemen's Readjustment Act. Today, we know it better as the GI Bill. Among the benefits promised were unemployment pay, assistance with home loans and most significantly, a free college education.

In a world reeling from war — one still far from an end — Congress had the will and the vision to invest in a rebuilding effort that wasn't focused on construction or industries but on the futures of the millions of women and men who had paid the price of that war. By establishing the largest national educational access initiative in the history of the world, the GI Bill turned what might have been a lost generation into a foundation for intellectual, economic and social pre-eminence.

Almost overnight, higher education in the United States was transformed. By 1947, veterans accounted for half of those admitted to college. By the time the original version of this bill ended in 1956, 7.8 million of the 16 million World War II veterans were participating in some education or training program.

That influx is one that reshaped universities and their missions entirely — and the University of Illinois was no exception. An enrollment that had dropped to 8,500 students in 1943 ballooned to nearly 39,000 by the end of the 1940s. The demand for an Illinois education far exceeded campus capacity, even with rapidly erected temporary housing. New satellite campuses were established in Galesburg and at Chicago's Navy Pier — both of which would have significant impact on the university and the world.

The Navy Pier campus became the foundation of today's University of Illinois at Chicago. And the Galesburg campus, which operated until 1949, was the original home to Professor Timothy Nugent's comprehensive program to open doors of a college education for veterans returning with physical disabilities. From those beginnings came everything from wheelchair-accessible curb cuts in sidewalks to wheelchair athletics to national architectural accessibility standards.

At Illinois and at universities across the country, the GI Bill transformed both the geography and the philosophy of college education and elevated the expectations of personal achievement not just for veterans, but for all of us.

It seems every generation must learn that the costs of war aren't measured in dollars, but in lost human potential. Whether in the world wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq, shattered bodies, battered spirits and families torn asunder remain a stark, unvarying reality of conflict in any era.

But as we saw in 1944, it is in these darkest moments when we come to understand defining truths and we act with a clarity and determination to ensure we aren't lost in those shadows, but that we learn from them.

Today, 70 years later, the GI Bill stands as the singular and enduring American declaration that the most powerful transformative force on Earth isn't a gun, a tank or a bomb.

It is an education.

Phyllis Wise is the chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.