The high cost of higher education and the student loan crisis has been getting a lot of press lately. Many argue that student loans are the next big bubble about to burst and destroy the economy, while others claim that’s nonsense. It has even been pointed out that Congress’s decision to let the temporary student loan interest rate reduction expire in July will only amount to about $6.00 extra dollars a month to each borrower.
But those who quibble about the actual cost to students fail to realize that the real import of Congress’s decision is more reflective of our national priorities than it is of even the most divisive party wars. The congressional decision to allow federal student loan rates to double and climb back up to 6.8% on federally subsidized Stafford student loans–nearly double that of today’s average mortgage interest rates–shows that Congress is more interested in short term, high-yield growth rather than slow, steady growth that has a firm foundation. By failing to think about the long-term benefits of providing lower cost, affordable student loans, Congress has betrayed a long-standing tradition of educational investment for the greater national good.
Education Has Always Been a National Priority
It’s hard to remember that federal student loan programs have actually not been around that long, given all the recent news about student loans and the high cost of higher education lately. But the tradition of educational investment for national improvement has been an important one in expanding democracy in the United States for a long time. For example, Benjamin Franklin was an early advocate for creating a strong relationship between education and citizenship:
The good Education of Youth has been esteemed by wise Men in all Ages, as the surest Foundation of the Happiness both of private Families and of Common-wealths. Almost all Governments have therefore made it a principal Object of their Attention, to establish and endow with proper Revenues, such Seminaries of Learning, as might supply the succeeding Age with Men qualified to serve the Publick with Honour to themselves, and to their Country.
Similarly, early 20th century education reformer John Dewey argued that “higher education promotes social progress of the individual as well as the greater good of the economic society.” When the real era of college accessibility began after World War II following the institution of The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, also known as the GI Bill, veterans were awarded grants to fund their college educations.
The idea that higher education benefited not only the individual but also society became even more common as part of a larger national priority during the Cold War, when the United States was out to prove to the world that the American way not only provided better lives for people than Soviet-style communism, but that a highly-trained, sophisticated work force made nations stronger. In 1958, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act of 1958, a limited federal student loan program. Student loans were increasingly viewed as a way to achieve two of America’s long-term goals: improving daily life for everyone and winning the Cold War. Thus the Higher Education Act of 1965 was created as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs, an extension of these goals.
At the time, it was clear that American education was in trouble. The facts are stark: when Lyndon B. Johnson took office following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the United States was at the height of its power but still had major education deficiencies. An economic powerhouse, the United States dominated the globe in trade, spearheaded the creation of the largest peacetime military alliance in world history, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and enjoyed unprecedented influence in global affairs. But at home, the people were struggling:
- Nearly 25% of all Americans, a group that socialist Michael Harrington termed “the other America,” lived below the poverty line. [Read this book for free on Google Books!]
- Eight million adults had not even completed the fifth grade and over twice as many had only a middle-school education.
- Nearly 25% of the nation, approximately 54 million people, had not completed high school.
- Though schools had been desegregated by the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, most schools in the south were still segregated by race and schools in the north were often segregated by class.
Given these problems, many argued that a nation with so much money, power, and influence should have the best education system in the world. It also made sense that the greatest democracy in the world should make sure that education was both accessible and attainable for all citizens. As a result, when Lyndon B. Johnson became president, his Great Society program included extensive benefits for education. Johnson defined the Great Society in his commencement address at the University of Michigan in 1965, and education was at the center of his vision:
The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time. But that is just the beginning. The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community. It is a place where man can renew contact with nature. It is a place which honors creation for its own sake and for what it adds to the understanding of the race. It is a place where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods. But most of all, the Great Society is not a safe harbor, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work. It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor.
Johnson may have had some major faults as president, but it was from this vision of America as a Great Society that came such valuable programs as Head Start, funding for library expansion and continuing education, and federally subsidized student loans that would make college affordable for those who had been economically unable to share in the opportunities offered by higher education. As a result, American universities expanded dramatically and more Americans earned high school diplomas and college degrees. Exchange students began to come in larger numbers from around the globe to participate in our education system. The programs and education strategies created by the Great Society initiatives have been part of American education ever since.
A Step Backward
Now, Congress seems to have turned its back on this long-standing tradition of valuing accessible and affordable higher education as part of building a strong nation. While the return to high student loan interest rates may seem a small financial matter to some, it speaks volumes about where we place education as a national priority. This is not a partisan issue, either: both Democratic President Barack Obama and his presumptive Republican challenger Mitt Romney supported extending the low interest rates. Groups and individuals at the extremes of American ideology also clearly value access to quality education, such as Occupy protesters and former Republican Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, whose recent report with the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) claimed that our education system is a national security risk-much the same way it was viewed during the Cold War.
This widespread recognition of the need for more investment in higher education, and more accessibility, runs counter to Congress’s recent decision to end the low interest rate break. It is necessary that we re-think college financing not along ideological lines, not as part of the ongoing struggle between fiercely partisan political parties fighting for control of Congress, but as part of our collective national mission. If we don’t, we risk losing even more in the long run than we would gain in the short term.