Between the LinesThe Door Swings Both Ways
“This will swing open a new door for the young people of America. For them, and for this entire land of ours, it is the most important door that will ever open—the door to education. This legislation is the key which unlocks it.”
Those were the words of President Lyndon Johnson as he signed the Higher Education Act (HEA) into law on November 8, 1965. In her EndSights commentary, AASCU President Muriel Howard says, “There is no doubt that Lyndon Johnson’s vision of improved opportunity for all Americans radically changed—and improved—both higher education and America in numerous ways. Not only did access to postsecondary education and training vastly increase as a direct result of federal support, higher education mitigated many of the historical inequities in our society. The expansion of opportunity made ours at once a more just and a more productive and prosperous society.”
History’s LessonsThe Meaning of the Higher Education Act
As marked by several notable milestones, Congress has made important changes over time in the package of legislation that oversees the federal role in higher education.
Shortly after noon on November 8, 1965, in a ceremony at his alma mater—Southwest Texas State College, now Texas State University, in the city of San Marcos—President Lyndon Johnson made history by signing Public Law 89-329, the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA).
At the signing, Johnson said the bill “will swing open a new door for the young people of America…the most important door that will ever open—the door to education,” adding “this legislation is the key which unlocks it.”
AASCU had a seat at the table—literally—in the crafting of the original HEA. Newly appointed in 1965 as AASCU’s first leader, Allan W. Ostar was invited by President Johnson’s education advisor, Douglass Cater, to help write the HEA. Now 91 years old, Ostar still recalls toiling for hours in a basement room in the White House, crafting language for the bill—and arguing on behalf of needy students. For example, he says, he advocated for more federal grants for students and was “fairly strongly opposed to having a significant dependence on loans.”
Serving the Public Purpose:AASCU Presidents Advocate for Public Higher Education
When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Higher Education Act into law in 1965, he dreamed of providing broader access for all Americans to pursue a college education in hopes of boosting the economy and improving quality of life. The legislation was put into place to improve higher education’s resources and provide financial assistance to students in need. Since then, millions of people have been able to reach their potential and make a difference in society.
AASCU institutions are meeting the academic needs of the majority of America’s students. Meet a few of our leaders who are outspoken in their advocacy for their institutions:
If Not for Pell…AASCU presidents and higher education leaders discuss what Pell funding meant for their educational prospects and how it has shaped their leadership
Dennis Shields grew up in an orphanage, a boys’ home and a series of foster homes in Iowa. He had no parents or financial resources, but he had a decent ACT score. Today he is the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin- Platteville.
Aaron Thompson’s coal miner father had no formal education, and his mother had to leave school after the eighth grade. Though they had no money to send him to college, his parents nonetheless encouraged him to go. Thompson is now the executive vice president and chief academic officer for the Kentucky Council on Higher Education and a tenured professor at Eastern Kentucky University.
Sandra Woodley married at 18 and by her early 20s had two children. Recognizing that a college education could help her economically struggling family, she started attending classes at her local community college. Ten years later, she had earned her undergraduate degree, and she didn’t stop there. Today she is president of the University of Louisiana System.
Desperately Seeking Legislative Intentionality
Seven years have passed since the enactment of the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, the last reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). To be technical, we are now two years overdue for a regular-order reauthorization of the HEA, and will probably limp along on annual extensions for a few more years before a full-fledged reauthorization. The ever-lengthening cycles of formal reauthorization are, among other things, a reflection of the growing complexity of the underlying legislation. It may well be that the traditional five-year timeline for a comprehensive review is no longer tenable, and that formally recognizing a longer cycle would bring our aspirations more in line with the reality of congressional practice.
While such a shift could help all stakeholders with a more deliberate and evidence-based policy development process, the fact is that many—and perhaps most—significant higher education policy shifts have been reactive or expedient changes to the law that were enacted when convenient through unrelated legislative vehicles. Most of these didn’t go through a committee fact-finding or hearing process, and were either necessitated or justified on the basis of exigencies rather than well-considered higher education policy. Examples include the Clinton-era introduction of direct lending and the Obama implementation of 100 percent direct lending, both of which were enacted through the budget reconciliation process.
FORGING A FEDERAL-STATE PARTNERSHIPSupporting Public Higher Education as Part of the Next 50 Years of HEA
On the 50th anniversary of 1965’s Higher Education Act, which was originally intended to enhance the upward mobility of America’s disadvantaged, we must ask ourselves if our federal policies have substantially increased lower-income student access or the social mobility of disadvantaged student populations as originally envisioned. Examples that little has actually changed for lower-income students permeate the nation’s higher education landscape. We are now positioned to develop new policies that could be more effective in keeping affordable higher education opportunities available to all citizens. Conversely, we could do nothing and condemn our country to another 50 years of failed policies, stagnant opportunity, and a growing divide between socioeconomic classes.
Currents & TransitionsCuba Presidential Mission Sets Stage for Joint Collaboration
AASCU, representing its more than 400 members, and the Ministry of Higher Education of Cuba, representing the country’s universities and research centers, signed a memorandum of agreement on September 10 at the conclusion of AASCU’s presidential mission to Cuba.
The agreement focuses on the creation of a joint task force that will be responsible for implementing several goals, including: developing mutually beneficial opportunities for faculty professional development, increasing student mobility, and for joint research at the undergraduate and graduate levels; promoting “Universidad 2016” Congress among AASCU members; creating an academic collaboration framework with specific steps and actions to be signed at “Universidad 2016” Congress; and continuing to support lifting the U.S. commercial, financial and economic embargo of Cuba, which impedes mutually beneficial academic collaboration.
EndSightsWhat the Nation Needs: A Reauthorization Bill as Visionary as the Original
Despite the best efforts and intentions of all of the major players involved in federal higher education policy, a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act is unlikely this year. There is simply not enough time left on the congressional calendar, nor is there evidence of substantial consensus on policy direction for a bill to actually work its way to the president’s desk in this, the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the original. In fact, as improbable as reauthorization is in 2015, it is even more so next year—a politically charged presidential election year—or the next, the first year of a new administration.
However, we should not be demoralized or disappointed at the dim prospects of reauthorization this year. An expanded window should energize all of us to push for a radical departure from the incrementalism of the policy course we have followed for decades. After half-a-century, the Higher Education Act needs a major overhaul based on a fresh assessment of where we are as a nation, not a minor tune-up based on custom and habit. Let me explain.