Let the Past Be Prologue

Let the Past Be Prologue

The Higher Education Act's 40-year-history is important to its future.

These are unsettling times for federal student aid. The year that just ended presented students and college administrators with a broad range of challenges, as Congress not only failed for a third straight year to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA), but voted for unprecedented cuts in funding of $12.7 billion in the federal Title IV aid programs. Final passage of the legislation reducing aid funding was delayed--probably until this month--due to a procedural issue, offering the slim hope that rising public opposition may lead to smaller, though still damaging, cuts.

Regardless of the outcome, however, 2006 will be a critical year for those who believe that broad federal support is needed to make college affordable to all who can benefit from a postsecondary education.

As college costs have increased and federal and state need-based aid has eroded, we have seen the doors of educational opportunity closing for many of our nation's youth. Nevertheless, those who believe in equal access to college must continue to work together to ensure that Congress understands, as it did when the original HEA was enacted in 1965, that:

Significant numbers of potential students are being denied access to postsecondary education simply because they cannot afford to attend.

Our institutions are experiencing financial strains and limited resources to properly educate and train the children of the baby boom generation who are now in our educational pipeline.

The doors of educational opportunities have closed for many youths.

When we hear talk from our nation's capital about balancing the budget by taking already scarce funds away from needy students, the cost of such action is too high, and is unacceptable if it is made at the expense of the education of the future generations of American citizens.

It would be helpful for today's Congress to look to its past before its members vote on our future. The year 2005 saw a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the passage of the first Higher Education Act in 1965. The National Defense Education Act of 1958 (with its National Defense Student Loans, now called Federal Perkins Loans) was the force behind the establishing of campus financial aid offices to assist deserving students.

However, it was not until the HEA that there was a clear initiative for a new national goal--a goal to broaden access to higher education by providing need-based financial aid to all qualified students.

It is important to remember that when the goals of the HEA were first articulated and subsequently refined through the legislative process, the resulting bill had broad, strong bipartisan support at every stage. I believe this happened because those lawmakers understood the pressing educational problems that our nation was facing.

Unfortunately, such support for these problems no longer appears to hold the high ground in Congress--not when the maximum Federal Pell Grant has remained unchanged for four years (failing even to heed President Bush's modest proposal for minimal $100 annual increases); not when unnecessary revisions to the Pell Grant tax tables resulted in untold thousands of recipients losing their awards entirely and many more facing reduced eligibility; and not when, for the first time, the costs associated with a national disaster are expected to be funded by mandatory deficit reduction and cuts in social safety net programs, including the federal student aid programs.

I have little doubt that most Americans, were they given the choice, would gladly pay a bit more in taxes to keep our student aid programs whole and even to expand them. They know from their own experiences, and those of their children or grandchildren, that a good education is an essential part of the American Dream.

I recall the special message sent to Congress in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson, when he proposed what would become the Higher Education Act. His message to Congress was titled "Toward Full Educational Opportunity." In it, he recommended that federal aid programs be extended to assist education at all levels (preschool to postgraduate).

His message was built around the theme of opportunity: "Every child must be encouraged to get as much education as he has the ability to take." Among the major tasks identified by Johnson as necessary to meet this goal was to provide incentives--at every stage along the road to learning--to those who wish to learn.

Many of us may forget that traditionally there has been great apprehension about the federal government becoming involved in education. Federal involvement at the level President Johnson sought was a significant departure from the hands-off attitude shown by Congress over nearly 200 years, except for rare exceptions such as the Morrill Act establishing the land-grant university system and the education benefits in the GI Bill of Rights for World War II veterans.

The reasons the time was right for a federal initiative were outlined at a celebration of the act's 20th anniversary by John Brademas, a key proponent in the House of that first HEA who later served as president of New York University.

Brademas noted that: "Colleges and universities across the country were experiencing acute financial strains. And they were apprehensive about rise in enrollments and the additional burden they would pose. The first wave of the baby boomers was heading for college in the period of 1965 to 1975. And overcrowded classrooms, inadequate libraries, deteriorating facilities--this was the scenario that was painted for Congress by presidents and deans of higher learning."

With only minor changes, this is an apt description of most of higher ed today.

Congress took Johnson's message seriously. The House alone held 10 days of hearings, and then passed the final legislation by an overwhelming vote of 368 to 22. The Senate produced its own bill, which it approved by a vote of 79 to 3. A conference committee worked out the differences and, on November 8, 1965, President Johnson traveled to his alma mater, Southwest Texas State College (since renamed Texas State University-San Marcos), and he signed into law the Higher Education Act of 1965.

The act that Johnson signed in 1965 established a new federal commitment to citizens seeking a higher education. Its centerpiece was the establishment of the first scholarships to financially needy undergraduates ever passed by Congress, the Educational Opportunity Grant Program (which now is called the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant Program). The act also created federal guaranteed and subsidized loans for low- and middle-income families, as well as expanded the college work study program that had been established the year before in the War on Poverty legislation, transferring its administration to the Office of Education in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

The HEA has been seen by some as an economic engine, by others as a vital social program, and by others still as a civil rights initiative. All of these views are true, and any one of them should be enough to justify offering robust student aid programs nationally.

President Johnson knew that it was not enough to open the doors of opportunity to education to needy students--it was necessary to help those in need to pass through those doors to take advantage of those opportunities. And until quite recently, that is what has happened.

We must insist that all of our elected leaders take on the necessary steps to reaffirm the promise that President Johnson made to the nation when he signed the HEA nearly 40 years ago.

He stated, "When you leave here this morning, I want you to go back and say to your children and grandchildren, and say to those who come after you and follow you--tell them that we've made a promise to them. Tell them that the truth is here for them to seek. And tell them that we have opened the road, we've pulled the gates down, and the way is open. And we expect them to travel it."

Dallas Martin is president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA). This column includes remarks made during the association's 2005 national conference.


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