The Higher Education Act at 50 Years: A Vision Unfulfilled

By Christian Arana

Fifty years ago this month, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the most sweeping piece of legislation that provided millions of Americans the opportunity to afford a college education. The Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965, as a part of Johnson’s War on Poverty, created the financial aid system we see today: need-based grants, work-study opportunities, and federal student loans. Through this bill, Johnson envisioned a society in which all Americans, no matter their economic background, could enroll in college and work towards greater social mobility.

Fifty years later, there are successes to report. Compared to 1965, the student population has close to tripled reaching over 20 million students in 2013. Across all racial/ethnic groups, enrollment numbers have also increased. For Latino students in particular, college enrollment has risen 240% since 1996. When over 40% of Latinos depend on Pell Grants to go to college, it is clear that the HEA has helped this group afford a college education.

Despite these successes, however, President Johnson’s vision remains a work in progress. With the rising cost of tuition, financing a higher education continues to serve as a barrier for students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds. As states have disinvested in higher education due to budget constraints, the burden to pay for a college education has shifted onto the shoulders of students. The Government Accountability Office reported that in the period between 2003 and 2012, state funding for colleges dropped from 31.6% down to 23.1%. Considering such trends, it should come as no surprise that a student from a high-income family is eight times more likely to attain a bachelor’s degree than a low-income student.

To compound this problem, lack of college success has also frustrated the promise of a higher education to millions of students. When those from low-income, minority backgrounds (who are often first-generation students) enroll in college, a small number actually complete a degree for reasons ranging from finances and academics to lack of confidence and social isolation. According to the Pell Institute, only 11% of low-income, first-generation college students graduate with a bachelor’s degree within six years.

Across the country, private colleges and universities have steadily worked to address these issues of access and success for first-generation students. At Georgetown University, the Georgetown Scholarship Program was founded in 2004 to attract more first-generation students to campus through competitive financial aid packages and robust programming that focuses on supporting students through graduation. At Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, President Dan Porterfield has increased need-based aid to $13 million to bring more low-income students to the school. His actions represent a larger strategy in making Franklin & Marshall a more inclusive, diverse institution that educates committed and talented learners no matter their socioeconomic backgrounds.

The vast majority of low-income, minority students, however, attend public institutions whose decisions often depend on federal funding. It is here where Congress, as it works to reauthorize the HEA, can and must play an aggressive role. From increasing Pell Grants and refinancing student loans to incentivizing the creation of college success programs and strengthening support of minority-serving institutions, the path to fulfill Johnson’s dream of a college education for all Americans can be within reach.

When more jobs today require specialized skills and some form of postsecondary education, making smart investments in higher education is not only morally the right thing to do in creating a more equitable society, but economically necessary for the United States to remain a competitor in today’s globalized economy.
Christian Arana is a first-year MPP student at the Goldman School of Public Policy.