Once upon a time this country thought big. We survived the Great Depression, fought the Second World War, rebuilt Europe on the Marshall Plan … and provided tuition-free education for college students.
Ask anybody from that era about the G.I. Bill and chances are you’ll hear how someone’s life was changed for the better. That bill educated a generation and provided affordable opportunities to form households and start small businesses. At the same time, and for years afterward, many public colleges and universities charged little or no tuition.
Not coincidentally, these moves were followed by an extraordinary period of growth in jobs and wages.
Today, it seems, we have forgotten how to think big. Austerity economists and the anti-government right wing have persuaded us to cut education funding and, in so doing, drastically increase college costs. Students and their families are now shouldering what was once society’s shared obligation: investing in the education that will lead to future prosperity.
Today, student debt is second only to home mortgages as a form of personal indebtedness, with nearly 43 million people holding well over $1.3 trillion in debt.
[Tell your story: If you have a story about the positive impact of G.I. Bill on you or someone you know, you can share it here.]
Lessons of the G.I. Bill
What can we learn from past successes?
The Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, also called the "G.I. Bill of Rights," provided veterans with cash grants to cover tuition and living expenses for college, graduate school or professional training. It also provided access to low-cost, zero-money-down mortgages, gave low-cost loans to start businesses, and provided unemployment insurance to veterans seeking jobs.
For the first time, millions of Americans had a new chance to get ahead in life. Country singer Johnny Cash used his G.I. Bill benefits to study radio announcing in Memphis. Former Presidents Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush attended college through the G.I. Bill. So did newscaster David Brinkley, astronaut turned Senator John Glenn, humorist Art Buchwald, entertainer/activist Harry Belafonte, and historian Howard Zinn, to name just a few.
The G.I. Bill’s benefits have been passed down through the generations. Children and grandchildren are able to attend college today because their parents and grandparents entered the middle class through the G.I. bill. Communities, and the nation as a whole, benefited too.
Political scientist Suzanne Mettler wrote that "the G.I. Bill's education and training provisions had an overwhelmingly positive effect on… civic involvement." People were given the education and the opportunity to enter public service, and many of those who did made their country better.
Those benefits were not equally distributed, of course. The G.I. Bill's beneficiaries were primarily male. African-Americans were confronted with a variety of discriminatory hurdles when they tried to obtain either an education or a loan through its provisions.
But 65,000 women (including the aunt of one of the authors) obtained an education through the G.I. Bill. And Mettler draws a direct line between African-American veterans who managed to receive a higher education through its provisions and the rise of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.
A Vote of Confidence
The G.I. bill barely made it through Congress. At the end of the World War II, many economists warned that the nation was about to sink into a recession or depression. The “budget hawks” of their day said we couldn’t afford it. But by investing in veterans, we built a stronger economy and grew our way into prosperity.
If our nation had listened to the naysayers, we would have lost the capabilities of an entire generation and foregone much of that era’s growth and prosperity.
Despite its limitations, the G.I. Bill was the nation’s vote of confidence: in its soldiers, in the economic and social value of higher education, small businesses and home ownership. That confidence was rewarded with the greatest period of growth in our nation’s history, despite the fact that this investment was made at a time when the federal deficit was the highest it had ever been.
As historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote, the G. I. Bill “contributed enormously to the release of economic and intellectual energy that carried postwar America to the summit of the world."
A New Crisis
Today we're facing a different kind of crisis: a partial abandonment of our former investment in the future. If you ask younger friends or relatives about student debt, you will also almost certainly hear stories like the shocking ones we have heard: about dreams not followed and careers not pursued, about sacrifices made and opportunities lost. Today, as stated above, student debt is second only to home ownership as a source of personal debt.
Millennials are graduating from college with more student debt than any generation in history, only to enter an unusually weak job market. Meanwhile, our nation is facing the most sluggish and prolonged recovery in modern history. Middle-class wages have endured decades of stagnation. Many parents are still paying their own student debt when the time comes to finance their children’s education.
This crisis is even affecting our nation’s ability to put food on the table. The National Young Farmers Coalition has identified student debt as an issue that is preventing its members from going into farming. That’s especially worrisome at a time when the average American farmer is 58 years old and only 6 percent of farmers are under 35.
If we don’t do something, the problems of growing indebtedness and fading opportunity will be inherited by our children and grandchildren. We are creating a vicious cycle of inherited debt.
A Bill of Rights, Not a Bill of Goods
People are understandably rebelling against this state of affairs. There is a growing movement to provide tuition-free education at all public colleges and universities. We believe that’s the right course of action, and we’re confident this movement will succeed.
But what about the 43 million people who are already burdened with student debt? We believe that it is time to declare a "jubilee" and forgive all student debt in the United States. We can do it. The federal government already holds most of the nation's student debt, and we feel that such an action would be consistent with the spirit of the G.I. Bill.
Our nation has spent decades telling young people to get an education, even if they must borrow to do it. But we didn't tell them that decades of growing inequality were suppressing middle-class wages and stifling opportunities for advancement. We didn’t warn them about the corporate greed that is hurting a generation’s labor prospects just as their careers begin.
When our young people deserved a Bill of Rights, we sold them a bill of goods instead. It’s time to do something for them by forgiving their debt, on behalf of a society with the humanity and community responsibility to do so.
A Time to Be Bold
Suzanne Mettler also wrote this:
“Today we have no comparable successor to the World War II version of the G.I. Bill: No policy that encompasses a broad cross-section of younger citizens, transforms their social and economic opportunities, and in the process incorporates them as citizens ready to engage more actively in the nation’s public life.”
It is time for a new initiative – one that matches the G.I. Bill in its ability to encompass a cross-section of young Americans, open up new vistas of opportunity, and free them from a burden that is preventing them from living the lives they deserve to lead.
As with the G.I. Bill, a Student Debt Jubilee will release both "intellectual and economic energy." Intellectual energy will be released when debt-laden young people are able to pursue their dreams and ambitions without being burdened down by the obligations of debt. Economic energy will be released when debt holders are able to form households, purchase homes and consumer goods, and invest in the small businesses that are the engines of jobs and growth.
And, as with the G.I. Bill, civic energy will be released when millions of Americans are able to devote more time to participating in the democratic process.
There is a growing movement on behalf on student debt holders, but more people must rally to this cause. We believe they will, once it’s clear that the problem is solvable and the fight is winnable.
A Student Debt Jubilee will right an injustice and affirm our core values. It is time to liberate 43 million Americans – along with their families, communities, and nation – from the crushing burden of student debt.
Previous columns about student debt and the "student debt jubilee" are at our student debt voter website.