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In 1964 President Lyndon Baines Johnson launched his War on Poverty believing access to higher education was an important weapon in the battle to change the economic trajectory of American society. One resulting bill, passed 50 years ago this month, was the Higher Education Act of 1965(HEA).
This legislation provided the first widely available access to student aid and aimed to remove cost as a barrier to college attendance. The private benefit of higher education would, in turn, bestow a public good throughout the nation in the form of a more educated and engaged citizenry that would foster economic growth. As President Johnson stated at the bill’s signing, “To thousands of young men and women, this act means the path of knowledge is open to all that have the determination to walk it. It means a way to deeper personal fulfillment, greater personal productivity, and increased personal reward…And in my judgment, this Nation can never make a wiser or a more profitable investment anywhere…We will reap the rewards of their wiser citizenship and their greater productivity for decades to come.”
With the passage of the HEA, the landscape changed at many colleges and universities throughout the nation. The doors of higher education opened for new generations of lower and middle class Americans. The federal government and state governments throughout the country invested widely in the concept that higher education was the key to not only personal but widespread national economic success. And enormous value was placed on the public good that education provides to the society at large. Sadly, over the past thirty years, we have moved away from the notion that higher education has societal benefits and have come to behave more and more like college is a private advantage that should be funded as a private commodity. We have seen massive state divestment in funding higher education. Grant aid funding as the primary source of financial assistance has shifted to a model requiring loans and family savings to cover the majority cost of college. Regrettably, we have lost the sense that higher education is a public good worthy of public investment.
We need to reestablish the idea that higher education is the best investment we can make to foster economic growth and social progress. Generations of Americans whose lives have been changed by a college scholarship or access to affordable higher education can attest to the fact that not only their lives, but the lives of their children, the companies that employ them, and the communities they live in, have forever been changed by the simple fact that a public investment was made in their ability to go to college.
At its core, the Higher Education Act was about education, opportunity, and a fairer, more prosperous economy. Until we reassert the common value that everyone has a right to higher education—regardless of your family’s ability to pay—the middle class will continue to sacrifice deeply to pursue the benefits that higher education can provide. For many it will be a losing proposition.
The current trajectory of higher education funding is dragging us backward, reinstating that early 20th century model of higher education where only the wealthy can go to college. The middle class will increasingly be saddled with loans that make economic security a challenge, and millions of American students may cut higher education out of their American dream because the cost seems too daunting.
It is time to recommit ourselves to the principle that higher education should be the birthright of every young person who is willing to work for it, and that through proper college financing, grant assistance, state investment in higher education and commitment to the principle that there is great public good in higher education that merits investment, the American dream of a higher education is still accessible to all. As President Johnson said, “This Nation can never make a wiser or a more profitable investment.” That was true in 1965 and it is still true today. It’s time to recommit to the original purposes of the Higher Education Act and its role in helping all to achieve their American Dream.