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The G.I. Bill

November 5, 1998

People who advocate tax-funded school vouchers for private schools frequently hail the G.I. Bill of Rights education vouchers for World War II veterans as a model. In truth, the G.I. Bill was a budget-busting middle-class entitlement scheme that had destructive effects on higher education, and set the stage for virtually all our current educational problems.

The public purpose of the G.I. Bill was to smooth the transition from military to civilian life after the war. But ulterior motives were also present. Washington Keynesians wrongly feared the economic consequences of putting this many people in the private sector at once; better to let them flounder around in schools for a few years.

Left-liberals wanted universities to be " democratized" and purged of traditional notions of merit and class. These ideologues saw veterans as a helpful tool (90 percent were eligible to receive funds) in this egalitarian effort. Moreover, colleges and universities across the country wanted government subsidies, just as they do today.

There's a myth that most veterans would not have attended college without federal government help. In fact, myriad programs existed at all levels of society. Virtually every major church, civic organization, and large corporation raised money to provide them, and most states established loan programs as well. These could have worked without negative effects on schools. But they were preempted by the feds and history's largest infusion of public dollars to education.

In 1946, the program's first year, the government dumped $1.3 billion on higher education. This may not seem like much today, but it was then the largest program giving direct payments to individuals, exceeding unemployment benefits, Social Security (by four times), military retirement (by one third), and even agricultural subsidies during the heyday of rural central planning. Two years later, it had exploded in cost by 250 percent.

As veterans grew older, spending stabilized and declined, but the program left an awful political legacy. It served as a model for how politicians can grow the government without provoking public revolt, and caused an entire generation to regard government as a benefactor. As Bob Dole said on the campaign trail, promoting federally funded vouchers, "I want to help young people to have an education, just as I had an education after World War II with the G.I. Bill of Rights."

The damage caused by the program was much more than fiscal. It made the centralization of education possible for the first time in American history. That in turn opened the door to the ruinous politicization of higher education that has marked the past half century.

The tool used by government was the college accrediting agency. A network of them was originally established in the late 19th century to work as private buffers between academia and government. Their purpose was to insure high standards, and prevent government subsidies from leading to government control.

After the second world war, the federal government used various college accrediting agencies to ostensibly guarantee a quality education for veterans. Only accredited schools could receive G.I. Bill funds, so the accrediting agencies quickly transformed themselves. They became the gatekeepers of the tax money and virtual adjuncts of federal power. This gatekeeper role expanded as federal funding of higher education escalated.

"Individual courses as well as whole curriculums" must be "attuned to the new tempo of society," wrote J. Hillis Miller, the New York education commissioner. Traditionalists will fight "a losing battle" because "any postwar nostalgic yearning for a college curriculum as it used to be is unlikely to be realized." "Higher education may have to lose its life in order to find it again," he writes with glee, "and in its transformation it may well find that it has helped to create a new world of light and hope."

This new world arrived almost immediately, as virtually every college and university in the country clamored for money and students, and willingly threw out traditional standards. This infusion of tax dollars created, notes Robert Nisbet, "the single most powerful agent of change that we can find in the university's long history." Had anyone objected at the time, he would have been put down as selfish and undemocratic.

Today, accreditation agencies, private in name only, have tremendous power over colleges and universities, and they are slavish to government's agenda. Today, these agencies are the major source of political correctness and big-government ideology on college campuses.

As Patrick Riley, a professor of classical antiquity at Concordia College in Wisconsin, has argued, accrediting agencies now look beyond traditional criteria such as library resources, classroom space, and educational qualifications of faculty. They impose "diversity standards," which attempt to tell colleges and universities what they should teach, who should teach it, and to whom it should be taught.

Colleges and universities are under relentless pressure to impose racial preferences for hiring, admissions, and even curricula, just as they gave affirmative action to veterans.

Joel Segall, former president of Baruch College in New York City, was told by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools that academic excellence must take a backseat to "social justice." Accordingly, Baruch was forced to develop a "comprehensive plan" of racial preference before it could be reaccredited. The independence of religious schools is also threatened by politically-correct accreditors working on behalf of government goals. In 1989, Middle States announced that it intended to withhold reaccreditation from Westminster Theological Seminary, a school of very high standards and one of the few remaining Calvinist seminaries in the country. Why? Because the school's all-clergy board was all male. It didn't matter that the seminary regarded the ordination of women as contrary to Scripture.

Knowing that accreditation agencies frown on religious sectarianism, starting in the days of the G.I. Bill, many Catholic schools long ago jettisoned their doctrinal distinctiveness and fit themselves into the mainstream culture. That protects the school's funding, and encourages government loans to its students, but it denies those same students and their parents an authentic choice in curriculum.

Government money has also politicized research. As Joseph Martino writes in Science Funding, "federal funding of science means federal control of the content of science."

Whenever government has funded any type of education, that education has become politicized, academic standards have declined, and intellectual independence has been lost. The history of the G.I. Bill illustrates this truth.

This is also why school vouchers would turn what remains of America's independent schools into pathetic, subsidy-seeking wards of the state, concerned more with indoctrinating their students in the latest political fads than with educating them.

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Thomas DiLorenzo is professor of economics at Loyola College and an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute.


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