It was a landmark era, the first time in American history when college enrollments included many older students. They made sure they got more from their college education than newly-graduated high school students. It was the introduction of the GI Bill of Rights, which was created during World War II. Teen college students suddenly were required to share their classrooms with newly-enrolled students in their mid- to late-20s. All were veterans returning from the war. Before then, attending college was almost entirely restricted to children of wealthy families. In 1940, less than ten percent of graduating high school students entered college.
The GI Bill brought a mighty influx of older students into college classrooms after WWII, more than two million of the ten million who served. In 1942, the U.S. Congress established a system whereby many veterans of the Armed Forces could attend college free. The eligibility for the number of semesters was based on years of active service. That meant most ex-GIs with at least three years of service could earn up to eight semesters, enough for a bachelor’s degree.
Most of the post-World War II veterans in college classrooms in 1945 and 1946 were in their mid-20s and early 30s, with 20 percent of them married and starting families. To their fresh-from-high-school fellow students, the veterans represented a new and unusual college presence and upbeat attitude.
Not interested in teenage pranks, drinking binges and parties, the veterans concentrated on their studies, and were determined to use their college years to establish meaningful careers. There were no conflicts between the two groups, because the younger students looked up to and admired the ex-GIs for what they had done to win the war. In fact, the veterans influenced many of the younger students to knuckle down and spend more time with their studies.
An updated version of the GI Bill is still in effect today, and the attitudes of older GI Bill students haven’t changed during the six decades that followed its inception. People in their 20s, 30s and beyond who first attend or return to college are much more serious about their studies. They’re committed to acquiring skills that will permit them to improve their working lives.
They tend to take the practical and professional courses, rather than the pure academics that have been the basis for aesthetic college education since the early days of Oxford University, such as history and literature. They major in the more practical economics, science, medicine and law. Those older college students have experienced life, and often war, and they’re motivated by what life has taught them so far. They’re determined to utilize their education to make life better for themselves and their families.