By Brian Brennan
Prior to the end of World War II, the United States Congress passed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944.
Signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the act rewarded discharged military service members, or GI’s, meaning “Government Issue,” with money for college, as well as loans for home purchases and other benefits. Originally, the GI Bill of Rights, it would become better known as the GI Bill.
Upon discharge, thousands of American men took advantage of these benefits and enrolled in the nation’s colleges and universities. Youngstown College was one of these institutions.
After an armistice ended World War I in 1918, Congress promised veterans a monetary bonus for their service, payable in 1944. However, many suffering ex-servicemen demanded payment in 1932, at the height of the Great Depression.
When the government refused, a “Bonus Army” marched on Washington. President Herbert Hoover responded with force. Under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, with the participation of Majors Dwight W. Eisenhower and George S. Patton Jr., soldiers dispersed the Bonus Army with tear gas, tanks and bayonets.
Hoover, already unpopular because of the economic crisis, failed to win reelection that November.
Pushing Congress to do better toward veterans of the second World War, the American Legion successfully spearheaded the drive for the GI Bill. Instead of providing a deferred lump sum payment, returning service members would receive immediate Federal assistance upon their return to civilian life — including full college tuition.
Locally, the GI Bill affected Youngstown College, now Youngstown State University, in three ways.
First, enrollment increased nearly eightfold when the GI Bill and its later versions were on the books. Between 1945 and 1966, enrollment rose from 1,508 to 12,033 students as World War II veterans and their Baby Boomer offspring matriculated.
Second, the high influx of new students necessitated the further expansion of programs and the physical plant. Real estate was acquired and new buildings were constructed. The number of faculty and academic offerings increased, transforming the college into a university.
Third, the large number of veterans led to a democratization of campus life. Prior to World War II, college was chiefly the domain of the well-to-do.
Many old traditions, such as the Freshman Edict, frosh beanies and fraternity hazing, were products of an upper-class outlook.
Through the GI Bill, the gates of higher education were opened to men from various socioeconomic backgrounds. Their maturity, earned in the crucible of war, made class distinctions and childish traditions seem irrelevant.
Over the years, a variety of benefits have been made available to military veterans, with these commonly viewed as updates to the original GI Bill. Generations of recipients have earned degrees and found success in business, industry and public service.
Today, veterans continue to make up a large part of the student population at YSU. In 2014, a Veterans Resource Center was dedicated to assist former service members as they pursue their studies and transition into civilian life.
The GI Bill was a good investment. America truly got its money’s worth.