Both my father and my wife Louise's father served in the military during World War II and both went to college on the GI Bill. My dad dropped out after two years and went to work in a steel plant because mom got pregnant with me; Louise's dad, Bob Goussy, who'd grown up dirt poor, went all the way for his law degree and ended up an Assistant Attorney General for the State of Michigan.
They were two among almost 8 million young men and women who not only got free tuition from the 1944 GI Bill but also received a stipend to pay for room, board, and books. And the result-the return on our government's investment in those 8 million educations-was substantial.
The best book on that time and subject is Edward Humes' Over Here: How the GI Bill Transformed the American Dream, summarized by Mary Paulsell for the Columbia Daily Tribune:
Reagan's OMB Director David Stockman told Congress that students were "tax eaters ... [and] a drain and drag on the American economy
"[That] groundbreaking legislation gave our nation 14 Nobel Prize winners, three Supreme Court justices, three presidents, 12 senators, 24 Pulitzer Prize winners, 238,000 teachers, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 doctors, 450,000 engineers, 240,000 accountants, 17,000 journalists, 22,000 dentists and millions of lawyers, nurses, artists, actors, writers, pilots and entrepreneurs."
When people have an education, they not only raise the competence and vitality of a nation; they also earn more money, which stimulates the economy
Because they earn more, they pay more in taxes, which helps pay back the government for the cost of that education.
In 1952 dollars, the GI Bill's educational benefit cost the nation $7 billion. The increased economic output over the next 40 years that could be traced directly to that educational cost was $35.6 billion, and the extra taxes received from those higher-wage-earners was $12.8 billion.
In other words, the US government invested $7 billion and got a $48.4 billion return on that investment, about a $7 return for every $1 invested.
In addition, that educated workforce made it possible for America to lead the world in inent for three generations. We invented the transistor, the integrated circuit, the internet, new generations of miracle drugs, sent men to the moon and reshaped science.
Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln knew this simple concept that was so hard for Reagan and generations of Republicans since to understand: when you invest in your young people, you're investing in your nation.
Jefferson founded the University of Virginia as a 100% tuition-free school; it was one of his three proudest achievements, ranking higher on the epitaph he wrote for his own tombstone than his having been both president and vice president.
"Lincoln signed the Morrill Act on July 2, 1862, giving each state a minimum of 90,000 acres of land to sell, to establish colleges of engineering, agriculture, and military science. ... Proceeds from the sale of these lands were to be invested in a perpetual endowment fund which would provide support for colleges of agriculture and mechanical arts in each of the states."
Fully 76 free or very-low-tuition state colleges were started because of Lincoln's effort and since have educated millions of Americans including my mom, who graduated from land-grant Michigan State University in the 1940s, having easily paid her minimal tuition working as a summer lifeguard.
Every other developed country in the world knows this, too: student debt is a rare or even nonexistent thing in most western democracies. Not only is college free or close to free around much of the world; many countries even offer a stipend for monthly expenses like our GI Bill did back in the day.