History of the GI Bill

Updated: June 21, 2024
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    The GI Bill is one of the most important military programs available. Over the years, the GI Bill has grown from a “one servicemember, one benefit” program, into a more useful set of education benefits for those in uniform, and their spouses and children.

    The GI Bill Has Humble Beginnings

    June 22, 2024 marks the 80th anniversary of the GI Bill.

    Something known as the World War Adjusted Act of 1924, a time-delayed cash bonus promised to veterans based on time served, could be seen as a sort of “proto-GI Bill”. However, the start of the actual GI Bill program wouldn’t happen until the World War II era; that’s when The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 was passed. This legislation was more commonly known as the “GI Bill of Rights”.

    According to the Department of Veterans Affairs official site, “Harry W. Colmery, a former national commander of the American Legion and former Republican National Chairman, is credited with drawing up the first draft of the GI Bill. It was introduced in the House on Jan. 10, 1944, and in the Senate the following day. Both chambers approved their own versions of the bill.”

    If that sounds familiar, it’s because later changes to the structure and intent of the GI Bill invoke the name of Harry Colmery and the procedural process to pass those changes seems to resemble how the original GI Bill came to pass.

    The 1944 version of the GI Bill of Rights included loans for farms or businesses plus unemployment compensation. It was intended for veterans and the original benefit did not extend help to those with ongoing military service commitments. Approximately $4 billion in GI Bill benefits (not limited to education) were paid to some nine million veterans between 1944 and 1949 alone, according to The Reader’s Companion to American History, and History(dot)com.

    Legislation in the Korean War era extended benefits to veterans from that conflict, and all service members (serving in war or peacetime) would finally be given access to the GI Bill thanks to the The Readjustment Benefits Act of 1966. This was an important step towards what we know as the GI Bill today.


    Congressman Gillespie V. ‘Sonny’ Montgomery

    In the mid 1980s, according to the VA official site, “former Mississippi Congressman Gillespie V. ‘Sonny’ Montgomery revamped the GI Bill, which has been known as the ‘Montgomery GI Bill’ ever since.” The Montgomery GI Bill was an opt-in program offered to new recruits in basic training, requiring recruits to pay $100 a month for one year, with the government providing a much larger contribution. Those who contributed had to serve a minimum time in service to be eligible for the GI Bill and the time commitment varies depending on when the member joined. Under this version of the program, an honorable discharge and a high school GED were required.

    A version of the Montgomery GI Bill was also made available to qualifying members of the Selected Reserve. The VA official site says those eligible for this version meet the following criteria:

    “…Have a six-year obligation to serve in the Selected Reserve signed after June 30, 1985. If you are an officer, you must have agreed to serve six years in addition to your original obligation. For some types of training it is necessary to have a six-year commitment that begins after Sept. 30, 1990.”

    Next we’ll examine the most important changes since the Montgomery GI Bill, including the advent of the “Forever GI Bill” passed by the House and Senate in 2017.

    In the 1980s, one of the important versions of the still-evolving GI Bill was made available to active duty military and qualifying members of the Selected Reserve: the Montgomery GI Bill. This opt-in program offered the education benefit to new recruits, but it was still “members-only”. No spouses or dependent children were allowed to use this benefit. Many in uniform lamented the fact that the GI Bill wasn’t transferrable, but the future would address this concern in the form of the Post 9/11 GI Bill.


    Post 9/11 GI Bill

    This happened in 2008, when according to the Department of Veterans Affairs official site (VA.gov), “The new law gives Veterans with active duty service on, or after, Sept. 11 2001, enhanced educational benefits that cover more educational expenses, provide a living allowance, money for books and the ability to transfer unused educational benefits to spouses or children.”

    The ability to transfer education benefits to family members was an important incentive, especially for those who joined the military already having degrees and/or highly specialized training. The Post 9/11 GI Bill allowed those who had previously signed up for the Montgomery GI Bill to switch to the new benefit, but the switch was “irrevocable” and had certain requirements.

    Some who had already used up much of their original Montgomery-era benefit were eligible to apply for Post 9/11 benefits for a limited duration, while others were able to switch and use most of the Post 9/11 benefits instead. Much depended on the amount of remaining GI Bill entitlement before the service member moved into the new program.

    Opening the GI Bill up to dependents and spouses was an important move in more ways than one. Those stationed overseas with family members could take greater advantage of distance learning, online courses, and college programs offered on base. These expanded opportunities, especially in the era of online learning, created new opportunities for higher education for military families.

    There have been adjustments and modifications to some aspects of the Post 9/11 GI Bill along the way, but none more significant than the introduction of new GI Bill legislation bearing the name of the original author of the GI Bill of Rights back in the World War Two era. The Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017 was signed into law by the President in August of 2017.


    Forever GI Bill

    Billed as the largest expansion of veterans benefits in ten years, the new legislation, commonly known as the “Forever GI Bill“, extends the GI Bill benefit to all Purple Heart recipients regardless of time served, adds more benefits for spouses and dependents, eliminates the 15-year time limit for using the benefit (for qualifying service members who were discharged on or after Jan. 1, 2013.), and adds protections for GI Bill users who experience trouble with schools that close before the student can finish a degree.

    According to a press release from the U.S. Department of Education, “This important legislation will give countless veterans and their families greater access to the education and workforce training they deserve. It will provide them the opportunity to invest in their futures with fewer restrictions and time limitations.”

    The Forever GI Bill has time-in-service requirements similar to previous versions of the benefit, but there are more relaxed standards for those who have served some, but not all of the time required to become eligible for 100% entitlement. There are also enhanced provisions for Reservists including similarly relaxed time-in-service requirements.

    Written by Joe Wallace

    Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News.