Losing Educational Ground

NEW YORK - Sixty years ago, Congress enacted legislation that would transform the nation's social and economic landscape in ways unimaginable at the time. On June 22, 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the Servicemen's Readjustment Act, commonly known as the GI Bill. Now , the GI bill remains exceptional not only for the massive expansion of middle-class America that it spurred, but also for reasons less obvious and less celebrated.

On one level, the GI Bill is remembered as a program to reward the sacrifices of returning veterans by helping them readjust to civilian life through higher education. But it was more than that. The bill widened the door to servicemen at every income level -- many of whom, had they stayed at home, would never have dreamed that they were college material. The GI Bill helped double the number of individuals receiving university degrees over a 10-year period. By 1960, about half the members of Congress had been educated under the GI Bill.

But on another level, the GI Bill also represents the positive, transformative power that the federal government can play in people's lives and in society. The GI Bill harkens to a time when Congress and the president dared to think boldly about America's problems and put the federal purse behind their convictions. The GI Bill cost about $5.5 billion at the time, the equivalent of more than $41 billion today. Of course, the nation recouped that investment many times over. It's estimated that for every dollar spent on the GI Bill, six were returned to the Treasury due to higher lifetime earnings.

Then there are benefits that are hard to value in dollars, such as the hundreds of thousands of doctors, teachers, engineers, scientists and other professionals who emerged from a GI Bill sponsored education to bring their expertise to suburbs, urban centers and rural areas in great need. Or the successive generations who grew up with college-educated parents and the expectation that they too would go to college.

Taxpayers also thought differently about their annual tithing to Uncle Sam back then, in part because of the war, but also because the values of fairness and opportunity were still something that inspired our collective spirit. Today, Americans have lost faith in the government's ability to solve problems -- and we are all paying the price.

Contrary to the spirit and achievements of the GI Bill, the country has retreated from its promise to ensure the affordability of higher education. After making substantial progress in the 1960s and 1970s through the expansion of low-cost public universities and community colleges, our commitment to higher education has ground to a halt. As tuitions have more than doubled over 20 years, our federal student aid system has fossilized. The average Pell Grant award, the nation's premier program for helping low-income students pay for college, covers just 39 percent of the cost of a four-year college. It covered 84 percent in the 1970s. Most students from middleclass families make up the difference by taking out loans of $20,000 or more. But students from more modest backgrounds can't get their hands on enough loans, grants or cash to pay the bill.

The states' fiscal crisis has made matters worse: As states cope with historic budget shortfalls by slashing their appropriations for higher education, public universities respond by raising tuitions. In the last year alone, 16 states had tuition hikes of 10 percent or higher at four-year colleges. The combined effect of anemic federal aid and the state budget crisis is chilling: last year more than 400,000 college-qualified high school graduates from low- and moderate-income families did not enroll in a four-year college, and 168,000 did not enroll in any college at all. Racial gaps in enrollment have widened and matriculation gaps between rich and poor students remain as wide as 30 years ago.

Our nation is in the grips of an opportunity crisis. Yet our public debate has been tellingly silent. Instead of taking action to ensure all individuals have the chance to go to college, our elected officials have opted for a blizzard of tax cuts and historic deficits. Our nation's leaders should think boldly about reaffirming our commitment to educational opportunity. Yes, some of the tax cuts will need to be repealed, but six decades of hindsight tell us that investments in higher education will reap rewards for generations to come.

Tamara Draut and Michael Lipsky are program directors at Demos, a national public policy organization based in New York.

 

Contrary to the spirit and achievements of the GI Bill, the country has retreated from its promise to ensure the affordability of higher education. After making substantial progress in the 1960s and 1970s through the expansion of low-cost public universities and community colleges, our commitment to higher education has ground to a halt.