In 1946, five-star Gen. Dwight Eisenhower visited Salt Lake City. A. Ray Olpin, newly named president of the University of Utah, arranged for Eisenhower to visit the university. A high chain-link fence separated the campus from Fort Douglas. Olpin had tried unsuccessfully to gain access to empty Fort Douglas facilities for university classes. Eisenhower listened to Olpin's request, then turned to his army commander and said: "Cut a hole in the fence. Let them have everything you can extra facilities, supplies and furniture nothing's too good for them."
Eisenhower was speaking of returning veterans from World War II. They flooded university campuses all over the nation, thanks to the GI Bill. The bill gave veterans money not only for tuition and books, but also for living expenses. Within a year, University of Utah students filled dozens of drafty wooden buildings at Fort Douglas. The government also dragged recently vacated prisoner-of-war barracks hundreds of miles to create Stadium Village adjacent to the football field. Married veterans and their families moved in.
Thanks to the GI Bill, millions of young men and women went to college. Many would never have had the opportunity without the GI Bill. Some had not graduated from high school.
The Bill helped transform the University of Utah from an elitist finishing school into a true university. The GI Bill changed lives. It changed the university (and all universities). It changed the state. It changed the nation. And it changed the world. Suddenly, higher education became available to almost everyone who wanted it even, in some cases, those who were not ready for it.
Now, we're falling back into shameful old ways. Only the wealthy and the gifted can afford private colleges, and public universities mimic that same exclusionary pattern. Because of restrictive policies, individual lives, the state, the nation and the world suffer.
We need a new GI Bill. Congress passed half a bill, but we need a greater commitment. The nation abuses volunteer military personnel; they richly deserve an education reward. The benefits are more than obvious. But the need goes beyond veterans. Millions of young people who would benefit from higher education don't have access. The nation grows weak because we don't expand education opportunities.
We need leaders who say, figuratively: "Cut a hole in the fence. Let those young people through. Give them what they need. Nothing's too good for them."
If this nation is to thrive, we should double student populations on every campus in America, just as we did in the decade following World War II. If we get the students on campus, then legislatures and private colleges will find ways to accommodate them, just as they did half a century ago.
And we should not be so persnickety about who we admit. Students with B and C grades in high school developed most of today's businesses, much of our technology and many scientific advances. Grades measure academic performance, but you can't measure desire, drive, insight, persistence, creativity, sociability, organizational skill, common sense or even wisdom.
And when you mix A students with students who have these operational skills, the A students become better citizens, while the skilled students become better learners. Everyone wins.
Utah has a new plan to provide scholarships for students with good grades in high school. It's a worthy idea. It deserves support. But it isn't enough. There's too much prejudice, discrimination, and elitism built into the grading system.
We need a cultural shift that says to every young person: "We want you to go to college; we NEED you to go to college. If you have the desire, we'll find a way to get you there. And we'll make sure it won't be an economic burden for you or your family."
Shortsighted wimps say we can't afford it. But anyone who studies the effects of the old GI Bill knows the cost is minor compared to the benefits.
The broad-based availability of college education makes the nation and its people happier, more productive and more prosperous.
Cut a hole in the fence that keeps too many young people outside of higher education. Let them into the halls of academe. Give them what they need. Nothing is too good for them.
G. Donald Gale is president of Words, Words, Words Inc. Parts of his college education were made possible by the GI Bill. Contact him at [email protected].