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The History Corner—The GI Bill, Psychology, and I-O Psychology

Kevin T. Mahoney, Louisiana Tech University

The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (which quickly came known simply as the GI Bill) had a profound impact on American psychology. The GI Bill provided a litany of benefits to World War II veterans, including unemployment benefits ($20 a week for 52 weeks), low-cost mortgages, and cash payments for higher education or vocational training. The motivation for the GI Bill was manifold: World War I veterans had been promised benefits which they eventually had to march on Washington to achieve (the infamous Bonus March of 1932). Politicians sought to prevent returning veterans from receiving similar treatment. In addition, returning veterans would need jobs, and the prospect of unemployment loomed. Veterans who became full-time students gave the economy time to recover and assuaged fear of another depression (Humes, 2006).

The GI Bill had a transformative effect. Even though few had aspired to home ownership before the war, home ownership boomed as developments like the famous Levittown, which allowed veterans to buy cheap, no-money-down homes, cropped up across the country. More to the point, higher education grew dramatically through the GI Bill. Scores of veterans flooded the universities to take advantage of free education; most would not have considered college a possibility before the war. In 1947, half of college students were enrolled through the GI Bill and more than 8 million veterans would eventually use the education benefits of the GI Bill. (Humes, 2006). In fact, Mary Tenopyr, Division 14 Past President (1980–1981), noted the difficulty of finding a school to attend, given how jam-packed schools were with veterans. The GI Bill dramatically increased the number of Americans who participated in higher education, undergraduate education, and beyond. With more students, there were more psychology majors and more who would go on and become professionals in psychology.

The GI Bill and Clinical Psychology

Although distinctions between psychological specialties were less defined at this time, clinical psychology was most visibly impacted by the GI Bill. Clinical psychology had grown slowly but steadily in the early decades of the 20th century. This growth is reflected by the formation of the American Association for Applied Psychology in 1937, an organization devoted to the professionalization of applied psychology (Capshew, 1999). World War II revealed a shortage of clinical psychologists; the military frequently could not find enough personnel (Capshew, 1999). After the war, millions of returning soldiers needed help of some form to aid readjustment to civilian life. The funds provided by the GI Bill for “educational, occupational and health assistance” (Baker, 2004), as well as those mandated through health legislation, went to the Veteran’s Administration. The VA would be the primary destination for returning veterans seeking treatment.

At first, the VA tried to provide services for veterans through contracts with colleges and universities, but the American Psychological Association objected to this strategy, believing the services these institutions provided was poor quality care. At this time, services in counseling centers were provided by those with little training; in fact there were very few places that offered clinical psychology training (Baker & Pickren, 2007). The VA needed a better way to help veterans.

To address the problem, the VA established the Clinical Psychology Training Program, which provided graduate training beginning in the academic year 1946–1947 (Baker & Pickren, 2007). Early on, The VA asked the APA to develop a method for identifying appropriate graduate schools in psychology from which to recruit. This request is thought to have led to the development of the APA’s accreditation program (Baker, 2004). The VA also required clinical psychologists to have a PhD to work in the Department of Medicine and Surgery at the Veteran’s Administration. This was a precedent that led the APA to require a doctorate for clinical psychologists to practice. In terms of requirements for obtaining a PhD, the VA’s program was based on the scientist–practitioner model of training in clinical psychology adopted by the APA at the 1949 Boulder Conference. Consistent with ideas long forwarded by David Shakow (Capshew, 1999), a PhD in clinical psychology required a 1-year internship where a student would be given practice experience in clinical psychology, on top of the traditionally required courses in experimental psychology (Baker & Pickren, 2007). Training would be a balance between science and practice.

Due both to the availability of jobs, and their desire to aid their fellow veterans, training in clinical psychology was very attractive to veterans. By 2005, 25,000 clinical and counseling psychologists had been trained at the VA (Baker & Pickren, 2007). Once trained, clinical psychologists went to work in professional practice (often back at the Veteran’s Administration, which was the largest employer of psychologists in the country; Baker & Pickren, 2007). Psychologists were more likely to become practitioners than ever before.

The GI Bill and I-O Psychology

Accreditation standards, a groundswell in applied psychologists, and the scientist–practitioner model are all examples of the GI Bill’s direct and indirect effect on I-O psychology. But how did the GI Bill change the life of individual I-O psychologists? One way to look at this is to read up on those who have held leadership positions as SIOP president (or Division 14 of the APA, before SIOP). This information is handy. Many of the past presidents have written autobiographies, and they are posted on siop.org (and those past presidents yet to write an autobiography will be pestered by the SIOP History committee until they do!). Two past presidents, Herbert Meyer (1917–2006) and Edwin Fleishman (b. 1927) wrote about the World War II GI Bill in their autobiographies.

Herbert Meyer (president, 1970–1971) learned about the field of industrial psychology as a flight instructor during World War II. After the war, he returned home to pursue graduate school on the GI Bill at the University of Michigan. Interestingly, he had intended to go there for a doctorate in physical education, until an interview with psychology department Chair Don Marquis led to a misunderstanding so that Meyer ended up pursuing a doctorate in psychology. Meyer would have a highly successful applied career with the Psychological Corporation and General Electric. He then entered academics to create the lauded graduate program at University of South Florida.

Edwin Fleishman (president, 1973–1974) became interested in psychology as a college senior (when he was a precocious 18-year old) and when he was in the Navy. As the war was ending, he worked as a demobilization counselor helping returning Navy personnel readjust to life as civilians. He soon headed to graduate school at the University of Maryland, where he supported himself as a chemistry lab instructor and with funds from the GI Bill. Fleishman would go to on to make a great number of contributions to the I-O field in areas such as leadership and human performance, with stops at Yale University, the Air Force, and George Mason University.

More recent forms of the GI Bill cover a smaller portion of higher education expenses, and many I-O psychologists have profited. Beneficiaries include occupational health psychology expert James Campbell Quick and the most recent Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award winner Robert G. Lord (R. Lord, personal communication, February 6, 2013). Meta-analysis guru John E. Hunter attended University of New Mexico through his father’s GI Bill benefits.

The GI Bill has opened our field to many. What or where would so many talented psychologists have been without the GI Bill?


   Baker, R. R., & Pickren, W. E. (2007). Psychology and the Department of Veterans Affairs: A historical analysis of training, research, practice and advocacy. Washington D.C.: APA.
   Baker, R. R. (2004, July). Contributions of VA psychology to American psychology: History and reflections. APA Award for Distinguished Contributions to Practice in the Public Sector address presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association, Honolulu, HI.
   Bandelli, A., Lopez Rivas, G. E., & Ottinot, R. C. (2005). TIP-TOPics. The Industrial Organizational Psychologist, 43(2). Retrieved from http://www.siop.org/tip/backissues/Oct05/pdf/Sheridan%20PDFs/_tiptopics_432_Layout%201.pdf.
   Capshew, J. H. (1999). Psychologists on the march: Science, practice, and professional identity in America, 1929-1969. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
   Humes, E. (2006). Over here: How the G.I Bill transformed the American dream. Orlando, FL: Harcourt.
   Tenopyr, M. L. (n.d.). SIOP Division 14 past-president biography: Mary L. Tenopyr. Retrieved from http://www.siop.org/presidents/Tenopyr.aspx
   Meyer, H. H. (n.d.). Autobiographical sketch: Herbert H. Meyer. Retrieved from http://www.siop.org/presidents/hmeyer.aspx.
   Fleishman, E.A. (n.d.). SIOP Division 14 past-president autobiography: Edwin A. Fleishman.  Retrieved from http://www.siop.org/presidents/fleishman.aspx.
   Schmidt, F. (2002) John E. (Jack) Hunter–Obituary. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 40(2). Retrieved from http://www.siop.org/tip/backissues/October02/pdf/402_156to159.pdf.