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4 Things to Know on the 50th Anniversary of the Signing of the Higher Education Act

Article by Tracy Young October 29, 2015 //   4 minute read

This week, Margaret Spellings, President of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, participated in a panel discussion with former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige and Mark Updegrove, director of the LBJ Presidential Library, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Higher Education Act.  They discussed the reasons for this important legislation and the contemporary issues of concern facing students and the higher education community today. Here are four things to know about the law.

1)      The Higher Education Act was signed by President Lyndon Johnson on November 8, 1965, at Texas State University. The legislation made a college education attainable for thousands of lower- and middle-income students. 

President Johnson was greatly affected by what he saw as a young teacher working his way through San Marcos Teachers College, teaching fifth, sixth, and seventh graders in Cotulla, Texas. His students were impoverished children of migrant workers.  For the rest of his life, he credited this experience as his first lesson in poverty and prejudice and the inspiration behind education legislation that would be part of his Presidential legacy.

2)      The Higher Education Act provided support to help public universities expand programs for a diverse population of students and research.

The original version introduced several integral components, including:

  • Authorized grants for research and programs focused on addressing societal problems such as poverty, substandard housing, and opportunities for youth. 
  • Aid to “developing institutions,” including Historically Black Colleges and Universities, two-year colleges, and technical institutions.  
  • Established Basic Educational Opportunity Grants (BEOG, which later became Pell Grants) and what eventually became known as the TRIO Program, designed to help low-income students; established the seminal Guaranteed Student Loan program; expanded and codified the federal work-study program; and integrated an existing federal program, the National Defense Student Loan Program, later known as Perkins loans.

3)      In 2005, then-Education Secretary Margaret Spellings brought together a commission focused on improving higher education for future students and the workforce as a “test of leadership” for our country.

The Secretary’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education, or the Spellings Commission as it is more commonly known, launched an important conversation about four main areas in higher education: access, affordability, quality, and accountability.  The Spellings Commission unveiled “A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education” after more than a year of collaboration, discussion, and engagement across the country.  The Commission’s findings and recommendations zeroed in on access; cost and affordability; financial aid; learning; transparency and accountability; and innovation.  It was a clear blueprint and path forward.

4)      Today, there are signs of progress, but more needs to be done to keep America’s advantage in an ever-changing, fast-paced world.

The pace and scale of change and responsiveness in higher education must be accelerated. Students and families are paying more than ever for a college education and asking whether it’s worth the money.  They need to see the benefits, and they need to see the match between the skills of graduates and employer demand.

As the American workforce requires workers trained in higher-order thinking skills, more students will require post-secondary education.  Higher education must use resources efficiently, provide access for more students and ultimately, achieve results, both intangible and those demonstrated through a strong, capable workforce. 

The higher education community is still wrestling with many of the same issues that the Spellings’ Commission tackled 10 years ago.  There’s a path forward, but it takes courage and bipartisanship.