On June 22, 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, better known as the G.I. Bill. Fearing the consequences of millions of veterans returning from war to scarce employment and housing opportunities, Roosevelt passed the legislation to offer unemployment compensation, home and business loans and tuition support.
This last benefit—money to put toward a college education—had unprecedented impacts on veterans and the higher education system alike. Recognizing the swiftly changing face of the American college student, LIFE published an extensive cover story in 1947 about student veterans, who had come to make up more than 50% of the college population in a very short time.
LIFE sent photographer Margaret Bourke-White to the State University of Iowa, where 6,000 students—a whopping 60% of the school—had served in World War II. One-third of them married, veterans were put up in cramped trailers. Many of them worked second jobs as taxi drivers or soda jerks and came home to study as toddlers tugged at their textbooks. LIFE described how the situation was changing the learning environment:
Teachers find themselves dealing with a new kind of student, who is having a real and sobering effect on higher education. The veteran student is poor and hard-working. He has been around enough to make subjects like geography tough to teach. He wants a fast, business-like education and is doing his best to see that he gets it. He is getting better grades than the non-veteran and has forced higher standards on everyone else.
While the G.I. Bill was undoubtedly a major contributor to the prosperity of the 1950s, it was not without its flaws. For one thing, its enforcement had the consequence of limiting spots for female college applicants. For another, African-American veterans, though entitled to the same benefits the legislation afforded, met with de facto discrimination that often rendered those benefits less meaningful.
For the students at Iowa and their counterparts across the country who were not excluded from the bill's provisions, access to higher education meant the chance to build a life after war. Asked by LIFE if they did the right thing going to college, “every one of the students answered, Yes.”
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.