How the GI Bill Has Evolved and Enabled Access to Higher Education

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Just over 80 years ago, on June 22, 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, also known as the GI Bill.

It has since been recognized as one of the most influential pieces of legislation ever produced by the federal government, providing World War II veterans with funds for college education, unemployment insurance, and housing benefits.

The bill provides money for tuition, books, supplies, counseling services, and a living allowance, and its implementation has resulted in a significant spike in college enrollment.

Within the first several years of its enactment, approximately 8 million veterans utilized GI Bill benefits, resulting in more than double the number of university degree holders between 1940 and 1950, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

More Americans obtaining a college education meant more were earning higher wages, creating economic stability and high rates of employment during the baby boom.

Although the original GI Bill expired in 1956, newer versions continue to benefit veterans today.

Joseph Garcia, executive director of education service within the Veterans Benefits Administration, an agency of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), has felt the impact of these benefits personally; he served 28 years in the Air Force and his father served in World War II.

Joseph Garcia

Facing economic hardship, Garcia entered the military right out of high school and later became a first-generation college student, an identity shared by 62% of student-veterans today, according to the VA.

“I would not be here without the GI Bill, period, and my story, I don’t think it’s that unique, [as approximately] 27 million have used the GI Bill, and it’s such a game changer,” he says. “All [GI] benefits are important [like] insurance [or] home loans — but education changes lives.”

In his role at the VA, Garcia leads more than 1,500 employees in the delivery of education and training benefits. Overall, these programs demonstrate appreciation to those who have served the country, enhance the lives of recipients and their families, and expand opportunities to achieve academic goals, Garcia says.

The GI Bill Today

Continuing upon the legacy of the original bill is the Montgomery GI Bill Active Duty legislation, established in 1984, which provides funds for education and training programs for those who have served in active duty. The Montgomery GI Bill Selected Reserve, created in 1985, offers up to 36 months of education and training to members of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard Reserve, Army National Guard, or Air National Guard.

Of all the GI Bills currently in place, the most widely known is the Post-9/11 GI Bill (PGIB), established in 2008, for those who were on active duty after September 10, 2001. This bill covers up to 100% of tuition and fees, and offers allowances for housing, supplies, and more. It also allows for the service member to transfer some or all of their educational benefits to a spouse or dependent.

Between 2009 and 2019, approximately half of PGIB-eligible veterans used their benefits and half completed their degree within six years, according to the 2024 study “A First Look at Post-9/11 GI Bill-Eligible Enlisted Veterans’ Outcomes” by the American Institutes for Research.

Positive effects can be seen across generations, says Garcia, as his son, who received benefits through the PGIB, recently passed them on to his daughter, who received her commission in the Space Force as a second lieutenant.

Among a variety of other programs that furthered veteran support, the Veterans Readiness and Employment initiative assists veterans who have service-connected disabilities, and also includes financial assistance for postsecondary education, counseling and rehabilitation planning, and various employment services.

In 2017, the PGIB was updated as the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act, more commonly known as the Forever GI Bill. It expands and enhances education support for veterans, service members, families, and survivors. Some changes include the removal of the 15-year limit to apply for benefits under the PGIB for veterans discharged after January 1, 2013; expanded benefits for Purple Heart recipients; and further support for veterans pursuing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) degrees.

History demonstrates that veteran and military initiatives evolve to better meet the needs of the populations served, Garcia adds. For example, work began in 2021 on the GI Bill modernization initiative, which will consolidate GI Bill capabilities to a single digital platform.

“I like to call it ‘The Arc of Change,’” Garcia says. “We weren’t satisfied as a nation to just keep that original GI Bill from 1944. I think we’ve done a good job of progressing with the times.”●

To learn more about veteran education benefits, visit va.gov/education.