A New GI Bill

The following Letter from the President appeared in the Fall 2009 issue of Sarah Lawrence magazine

Karen Lawrence at Reunion 2009At reunion weekend in June, I had the pleasure of dining with Howard Goodman ’49, back for his 60th reunion, and his son Mark ’83, who is now a member of the Board of Trustees. Growing up, Mark had been regaled with stories of his father’s educational experience at SLC, and they helped inspire him to enroll. Howard Goodman’s attendance at Sarah Lawrence was enabled by a vote of Congress establishing the 1946 GI Bill—as well as a vote by the faculty of SLC. In April 1946, the faculty voted to accept a limited number of veterans as day students. In fact, the College changed its name—Sarah Lawrence College for Women—in order to grant degrees to male veterans. By the time the last veteran graduated in 1951, the College had admitted 44 veterans (including four women) and had graduated 32.

In 1957, anthropology faculty member Irving Goldman researched the fate of the veterans. He deemed the “experiment” on campus “a success” and found that the GIs valued their educations for the same reasons as their civilian classmates. One veteran wrote, “The significant factors in a Sarah Lawrence College education are, I think, equally important for men as well as women; i.e., a questioning mind, learning to know how to learn, recognition of one’s own biases, close contact with teachers.” Joseph Papaleo ’49, who went on to teach comparative literature at the College for 36 years, saw Sarah Lawrence as “the beginning of the permission to reinvent yourself” (Journal News, June 6, 2000).

In opening its doors to veterans, Sarah Lawrence was responding to a social need. Approximately 100,000 students, both men and women, applied to college in New York state after the war, and SLC president Harold Taylor urged the College to do its part in supporting their education.

Thanks to the “Post-9/11 GI Bill” enacted in 2008, Sarah Lawrence College will again welcome qualified veterans to campus. The bill offers veterans a housing allowance, a stipend for books, and funds toward tuition—enough to cover the highest undergraduate tuition at a public college or university in the state. That amount doesn’t go very far at liberal arts colleges like Sarah Lawrence, but under the new Yellow Ribbon Program, the VA will match additional dollars that an institution contributes toward tuition costs. Each institution, of course, retains its traditional role in selecting students who meet the standards for admission.

Sarah Lawrence will offer support to up to five qualified applicants per year through the Yellow Ribbon Program. We can offer these men and women a superb education, and they will bring a striking diversity of experience to the campus.

Like the original GI Bill, the new program will put a college degree within reach for many who could not otherwise afford it. Both bills target veterans returning from war, unlike other educational benefits geared toward peacetime military service. Yet there are differences.

The consensus supporting America’s participation in World War II contrasts with the widespread belief that our decision to invade Iraq was a serious mistake. In this context, the unpopular Iraq War is more analogous to Vietnam. The bill’s sponsors, senators James Webb (D-VA) and Chuck Hagel (R-NE), were both infantry combat veterans in Vietnam. Tellingly, there was no GI Bill following that war, and the senators referred to themselves as part of the “wounded generation” and urged “first-class” appreciation for returning veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan (New York Times, November 9, 2007).

Another difference between the two GI Bills involves the demographics of the beneficiaries. According to the authors of The GI Bill: A New Deal for Veterans, the first bill aided about 8 million Americans—many of them conscripts—but comparatively few women and African-Americans benefited; with the new bill, it is likely that comparatively more women and more veterans of color will benefit.

The new GI Bill ensures that returning soldiers get the benefits they deserve, and Sarah Lawrence is committed to assisting those who have made sacrifices for our country. We are actively recruiting veterans for next year (the program just began in August), and staff members have already attended a meeting on how to create a “veteran-friendly” campus. We look forward to welcoming veterans to campus in coming years and helping them to “reinvent” themselves—to quote Joe Papaleo—at Sarah Lawrence.