Of course, most of them had a solid foundation in the secondary schools of their day, and they had the work ethic and the drive to complete their courses -- something many young people today lack.
But the reason the government came up with the GI Bill had nothing to do with gratitude to the young people who fought the war, still less a general benevolence on the part of government. No, it was fear that caused the Congress to create the GI Bill: fear of economic collapse.
War production had finally brought the country out of the Great Depression. Full employment had been achieved. But there were sixteen million men under arms due to be discharged in a very short time, and they had all been guaranteed their old jobs back by law. What to do with them so that their return didn't plunge us back into mass unemployment was the challenge. Opening up college opportunities for the returning vets was a way to soften the blow of their return, by having them spend a few years doing something other than trying to re-enter the job market. The fact that helping the vets go to college super-charged their prospects was an unexpected side benefit.
Well, in the course of just a few years, those returning vets started to pump out babies like rivets. Members of my generation -- the Baby Boom -- began working our way through the institutions of society like the proverbial puppy swallowed by a snake. They couldn't build primary schools fast enough. Then they had to build secondary schools by the job lot. And again, great fear seized upon the powers that be. What would happen when all those Baby Boomers started turning eighteen and graduated from high school and began trying to enter the job market? Once again, the specter of mass unemployment reared its ugly head.
And so the gummint fell back upon the example of the GI Bill's success. Loan and grant programs were created, with ever greater funding, to encourage young people to go to college. I remember the propaganda I was fed in high school. Everybody could benefit from "some college," we were told, even if they didn't finish. It helped you finish growing up. And so, off to college we all trooped, in a vast horde.
Over time, this ethic of going to college as an exploratory, maturation kind of thing -- as opposed to finishing some course of study -- became the accepted model of college. Which meant that fewer students finished their degrees. It also meant that colleges expanded enormously, offering more and more classes and programs, many of little worth.
And did government assistance make college more affordable? No. The vast tranches of government money made possible the enormous ballooning of administrators, not teachers. Not only that, but tuition has risen steadily to soak up all the money available. Government subsidies to higher education on such a massive scale has done for college what government subsidies to agriculture did some years ago: encouraged to plant fence-row to fence-row (and go in debt to do it), the government created a surplus that devalued the very thing they were attempting to encourage. Many a farmer lost the farm, literally, to the debt they were encouraged to take on. In just the same way, many a college student today, even if they finish their degrees, find themselves mired in student debt. And this assumes that their degree is in something that offers a future.
The fact is, too many young people today are ill-prepared for college. Offering them easy funding (or free funding) is not doing the ill-prepared a favor. And college doesn't become cheaper when government spreads around the money so freely; rather, costs rise in direct proportion to the amount of funding available to make it more affordable. And the solution (surprise!) is always more government funding.
Nothing is so expensive as something the government offers you for free.