For many veterans, the GI Bill is 'life-changing'

Chris Koleno
June 17, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When it was first enacted on June 22, 1944, near the end of the Second World War, the GI Bill changed the lives of veterans by giving them many benefits, including a tuition-free education. As the 75th anniversary of the GI bill approaches, this piece of legislation continues to provide opportunity to veterans, including those enrolling at Penn State.

The GI Bill of 1944 is formally known as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act. Since being signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, it has qualified generations of veterans for a range of benefits, including attending college, in most cases tuition-free with a housing stipend. Today, many of these “GIs” choose Penn State for a variety of reasons. The vast majority of the 3,277 former military members enrolled at the University in the spring of 2019 were using the current version of the GI Bill — called the Post 9/11 GI Bill — to pay for their college experience.

“Just having the GI Bill, is life-changing.”

— Veteran Kyle Larson, sophomore in labor and employment relations at Penn State

Photo of veteran

Veteran Kyle Larson is a sophomore in labor and employment relations at Penn State.

IMAGE: Courtesy Kyle Larson

“I think it’s awesome that Penn State is very military-friendly,” said former Marine Cpl. Kyle Larson, a sophomore in labor and employment relations at Penn State. “You can tell by the Military Appreciation Week, the military appreciation game. ... It’s good that there is a college like this that is military-friendly and very welcoming to new veterans.”

While many civilians have heard of the GI Bill, most may not be familiar with the benefits afforded to members of the military under this legislation. Also, many Americans accustomed to the term “GI” may not be as familiar with its uncertain origins as a way to refer to U.S. soldiers. During World War I the term GI was used to refer to all things Army-related, and GI was reinterpreted as “government issue” or “general issue.” In World War II, soldiers began to refer to themselves as GIs and the name stuck.

The exact amount of the benefit that service members receive from the GI Bill is dependent on a veteran’s length of service and the college’s zip code. For Larson and any veteran serving at least three years in the military, this benefit translates into a monthly housing allowance and tuition-free college.

However, just because a veteran falls under the GI Bill does not guarantee admission to their college of choice. These former members of the armed forces must still meet the academic requirements for admission to Penn State or any other college or university.

GI Bill’s effect on veterans’ lives

Larson, who served in the military from 2013 to 2017, reflected on what his life would be like without a college education, if he were to have entered the job force straight from the military.

“Coming out (of the Marines), the biggest thing I could do was be a security guard or maybe a police officer,” said Larson, who noted that many jobs as a police officer also require a college degree. “Now I can see that there are a lot of skills that I learned in the Marine Corps that translate. But if I wouldn’t have gone to college and been able to figure it out myself, then I don’t think I would have been able to translate those skills into what I have now.”

Marines at training center

Penn State student-veteran Kyle Larson shown with the rest of his infantry unit — 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, Fox Company "Blackhearts," 3rd platoon — at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, California. 

IMAGE: Courtesy Kyle Larson

How much the GI Bill benefits a veteran cannot be understated, said Larson, who is president of the Penn State Veterans Organization

“Just having the GI Bill, is life-changing,” he said. “If I didn’t have the GI Bill, I wouldn’t be here (Penn State). Definitely not at Penn State; probably not in college at all.”

Having served in the military and then subsequently enrolling in college, Larson has an increased appreciation for his opportunity.

“I paid four years of my life for this,” Larson said. “I’m going to go to class every day. I want to get good grades and I want to make it worth it.”

Larson enjoys the outdoors and hopes that his college education will allow him to work in human resources for a small to midsize hunting company.

History of the GI Bill and its impact on Penn State

Leading up to the end of World War II, Congress took a hard look at how to best reacclimate about 16 million military members, mostly men, to civilian life. Remembering the politically bad optics of World War I veterans marching on Washington, D.C., due to postponed life-insurance policy payouts, legislators wanted to avoid angering a much larger pool of individuals who were about to exit the military.

“Institutions were adjusting to this, sort of, ‘manna’ from heaven. The effects of this were actually extraordinary. About a million people, mostly men, ended up getting college degrees who otherwise, most likely, never would have.”

— Brian Clark, director of the Office of Veterans Programs at Penn State

Soldiers at Penn State

Military personnel socialize with other students outside of the present-day Electrical Engineering West Building on Penn State's University Park campus, circa 1945.

IMAGE: Penn State University Libraries

“Fear made us generous,” said Brian Clark, director of the Office of Veterans Programs at Penn State. “We had to figure out a way to civilianize this population. If we didn’t, we would have had anarchy.”

As a result of this generosity, the GI Bill was born. Under the original program, benefits included low-cost mortgages, low-interest loans to start a business, one year of unemployment compensation, and the most well-known benefit — payments of tuition and living expenses while attending school.

After the introduction of this new benefits package for veterans, high schools, colleges and trade schools were inundated with new applicants.

“Institutions were adjusting to this, sort of, ‘manna’ from heaven,” said Clark. “The effects of this were actually extraordinary. About a million people, mostly men, ended up getting college degrees who otherwise, most likely, never would have.”

To put this windfall into perspective, enrollment at Penn State in 1944 was 3,294; by 1945 that number jumped to 5,779; and just one year later in 1946, enrollment stood at 10,563 — more than triple the pre-GI Bill figure. Enrollment numbers continued to rise to a high-water mark of 14,970 in 1949, before growth began to stabilize.

Campers in lines

After World War II and the enactment of the GI Bill, Penn State had a massive influx of soldiers enroll at the University. In order to house more of these veterans at University Park, about 350 campers were brought in as living quarters. This area, located along College Avenue near present-day Redifer Commons/South Halls/Breazeale Nuclear Reactor, became known as Windcrest Park.

IMAGE: Penn State University Archives

“Penn State went from being a little college, to a major university,” said Clark. “This was the springboard. It wasn’t just Penn State. All of the big universities got their jump-start following World War II and the influx of GI Bill recipients. So, it was a big deal.”

Many experts believe the GI Bill was probably the biggest thing to ever happen to American higher education in terms of its growth.

GI Bill continues to evolve

Since the first GI Bill was signed in 1944, many iterations have come and gone, but none would be as beneficial to U.S. veterans as the original. Today’s version — passed in 2008 and put into effect in 2009, in response to 9/11 — is the most beneficial edition of the original bill to date.

The latest modification came in 2017 through the passage of the Forever GI Bill. Among other things, this bill eliminates the 15-year window to use benefits, and allows veterans to give benefits to their dependents — up to 36 months of college education, enough for nine semesters.

From 1944 through today, the GI Bill is changing the lives of veterans across the U.S., including more than 3,000 presently enrolled former military members at Penn State.

Penn State has a longstanding and proud tradition of serving the men and women of our military through education benefits, resources, support and more. This year's Military Appreciation Week from Nov. 8 to 16 will honor America's "Greatest Generation" with a weeklong series of campus events, including a football game, Veterans Day ceremony, speaker series and more. Visit militaryappreciation.psu.edu to learn more.

Last Updated June 20, 2019