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The law made college affordable for a group of veterans who never would have thought of going beyond high school, says John Thelin, a professor at the University of Kentucky and author of A History of American Higher Education.
The GI Bill was an unexpected success, Thelin says, enrolling just under 8 million veterans — 10 times the number the authors of the bill had predicted.
This sudden, enormous demand, Thelin adds, could have pushed college costs higher — but didn't, because states embraced the idea. The booming postwar economy allowed them to spend unprecedented sums of money to expand higher education.
"The biggest problem that was facing governors and legislators was, could we build campuses fast enough?" Thelin says.
While states were investing, the federal government was carving out a new role for itself: helping families pay for college. It spawned the National Defense Student Loan program, later called the Federal Perkins Loan program, which did for civilians what the GI Bill had done for veterans — and opened college gates even wider.
Then, with the civil rights movement as the backdrop, the landmark Higher Education Act of 1965 pushed for greater college access for women and minorities.
At the same time, Thelin says, from "1965 to 1972, colleges and universities dug very deep into their own pockets to provide grants and other forms of student financial aid in partnership with the new federal programs."
Americans flocked to campuses with the expectation that the government was going to foot part of the bill, and college did become affordable for many more Americans.
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