Why the Higher Education Act Matters

2) President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Higher Education Act at Southwest Texas State College on November 8, 1965. Image in public domain.

2) President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Higher Education Act at Southwest Texas State College on November 8, 1965. Image in public domain.

November 12, 2015

When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Higher Education Act into law on November 8, 1965, he said, “This will swing open a new door for the young people of America … the most important door that will ever open — the door to education. This legislation is the key which unlocks it.” He signed it in the gymnasium of his alma mater, Southwest Texas State College (now Texas State University). In his remarks, Johnson recalled how his own personal experiences shaped the piece of legislation he was about to sign, both as a student working his way through college and at his first job as a teacher in a poor rural school in Texas.

The purpose of the Higher Education Act was “to strengthen the educational resources of our colleges and universities and to provide financial assistance to students in postsecondary and higher education.” The legislation enabled many to attend college who would not otherwise have had the chance. It covered many bases, including the provision of federal resources for continuing education, community service programs, and stronger library programs and library instruction. In addition, the law supported cooperative arrangements between colleges and universities and the establishment of a National Teacher Corps to attract teachers to underserved institutions.

However, the most far-reaching component was the reduction of financial barriers to attending college. 1965 marked the beginning of a coordinated federal effort to address the issue of financial aid for all students with the establishment of low-interest federal student loans. A subsequent reauthorization of the Act in 1972 led to the creation of the Pell Grant program, which provides need-based grants for students at middle and lower income levels.

Naturally, AAUW supported the Higher Education Act. After all, our organization’s very first committee to consider legislation related to education was established in 1898 (appropriately called the Committee on Educational Legislation). So by 1965, we had been at this for a long time!

On March 18, 1965, AAUW General Director Pauline Tompkins submitted testimony to Rep. Edith Green (D-OR), chair of the Special Subcommittee on Education of the Committee on Education and Labor. Two years earlier, Green, herself an AAUW member, spoke at the AAUW National Convention in Denver on the subject of accessibility to higher education, addressing many of the same issues that would be covered in the Higher Education Act that she subsequently introduced.

Affectionately called the “Mother of Education” and “Mrs. Education,” Edith Green served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 19 years and on the special education committee for 18 of them. And like President Johnson, her passion for accessible education drew upon her own personal experiences, as she was forced to withdraw from college due to financial hardship.

In her testimony, Tompkins pointed to the fact that AAUW was no stranger to the contents of the bill. Just a few years prior, AAUW had begun the very successful College Faculty Program, a three-year program funded by a Rockefeller Brothers Fund grant of $267,000. The program was designed to provide continuing education assistance to women aged 35 and older returning to complete their degrees to pursue careers as college faculty. Tompkins also pointed to AAUW’s long history of awarding financial assistance in the form of fellowships and grants to women. According to Tompkins, without support from organizations like AAUW and from the federal government, “valuable hidden resources are never utilized — to the detriment of our society.”

Since 1965, the Higher Education Act has been reauthorized eight times. AAUW has been there for the last 50 years continuing to ensure that women were represented each time it was reauthorized.

And the law is just as crucial as it was decades ago — perhaps even more so, now that workforce changes have resulted in higher education becoming less of a luxury and more of a necessity.

Now Congress is once again in the midst of preparing to update the Higher Education Act, and at AAUW we’re determined to ensure vital student protections are included. We have urged representatives to support countless measures that affect students, including increasing investment in Pell grants, expanding income-based loan repayment options, growing STEM programs for women, protecting Title IX, and ending campus sexual harassment and violence. Every American should have access to higher education, and we’re more committed than ever to making the dream of higher education a reality for all women and men.


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