Going to War and Going to College

Going to War and Going to CollegeDid World War II and the G.I. Bill Increase Educational Attainment for Returning Veterans?
The end of World War II brought a flood of returning veterans to America’s colleges and universities, with veterans accounting for about 70% of male enrollment in the years after V-J Day. Both contemporaneous assessments and the analyses of historians and economists point to the G.I. Bill as a policy instrument with dramatic effects on the level of educational attainment of returning veterans, as well as the overall landscape of American higher education. For example, Sidney Burrell concludes that the G.I. Bill led to “what may have been the most important educational and social transformation in American history.” The effects of the G.I. Bill on collegiate attainment are widely thought to have affected both the level and the distribution of education for men entering the labor force in the second half of the 20th Century. In this regard, the World War II G.I. Bill was seen by many to have “democratizated” the collegiate population by making college a viable option for men from a range of sociodemographic backgrounds including minorities, children of immigrants, and children raised in low income households. In contemporary policy discussions, the legacy of the G.I. Bill has been invoked recently as evidence of the potential effectiveness of vouchers at the primary-secondary level (Hauptman, 1998). Yet, there is little evidence on the question of whether military service, combined with the availability of post-war educational benefits, led World War II veterans to increase their investments in education – particularly at the college and university level.
Certainly, the presence on campus of returning veterans was hard to miss in the years immediately after the conclusion of hostilities. Total enrollment jumped by more than 50 percent from the pre-war (1939) level of 1.3 million to over 2 million individuals in 1946, with further increases through 1949. Over 2.2 million veterans or approximately 1 in 8 of the returning servicemen attended college under the G.I. Bill (Olson, 1974). At issue is the extent to which this burst of collegiate participation reflected ‘new demand’ or educational investments that had been postponed with the war effort.
The question at the heart of this paper is whether the combined forces of military service and the availability of sizable subsidies through the G.I. Bill increased educational attainment for World War II veterans. Since physical and mental fitness were prerequisites for military service, comparisons of the educational attainment of veterans and nonveterans from the same birth cohort are likely to overstate the causal effect of military service and the availability of postwar benefits. Differences between birth cohorts in the likelihood of military conscription generated by changing manpower requirements in the armed forces during the World War II period provide exogenous variation to measure the effect of veteran status on educational attainment. Our primary estimation strategy is to aggregate within birth cohorts and to use the between-cohort variation in veteran status to measure the effect of World War II and the availability of G.I. benefits on collegiate attainment.