Up until 1862, college in America was reserved for the wealthy. Sons of the elites were schooled in the classics, law or medicine. If a poor boy wanted to attend college, the only means to do so was one of the military academies.
But that began to change during the Civil War when the Land Grant College Act was signed into law by Abraham Lincoln. Under the Act, the federal government gave land to the states with the proviso that they would sell it and spend the proceeds to create and endow public universities. This was the origin of our own University of Illinois that first opened its doors in 1868.
The concept of land grant colleges was based on the belief that you shouldn’t have to come from a wealthy family to get an advanced education and that an increasingly mechanized and industrialized society would need scientists, engineers and others to nurture its development.
The idea of higher ed for the masses got a big boost following World War II with the passage of the GI Bill of Rights. It put a college education within reach of millions of Americans who couldn’t even afford a public university and it was wildly popular as 8 million veterans took advantage of it — 10 times more than had been forecasted.
You might think that this surge in demand would have overwhelmed the supply and pushed tuition higher but it didn’t. For example, a year’s tuition for incoming freshmen at the University of Illinois in 1966 was just $170. That’s because states endorsed the concept of affordable higher education and used tax dollars to keep tuition costs low.
Higher ed got another big boost in 1958 with the passage of the National Defense Education Act. Driven by the Soviet’s launch of Sputnik the year before and a sense of panic that we were falling behind our archenemies in the race for science and technology, the act provided low-interest loans for college students.
This financial push for more, better-educated Americans began a gradual change in about 1970 as spending on higher ed began to decline.
The trickle in this direction became a flood in this millennium. Cuts in spending on both the state and federal levels have pushed colleges to fill the gap with tuition dollars. According to federal data, the inflation-adjusted price for tuition, room and board at public institutions rose 42 percent between the 2000-2001 academic year and 2010-2011. Those combined costs at the University of Illinois, for example, have grown from less than $13,000 in 2000 to nearly $30,000 for this past school year.
This government retraction from higher education has been occurring at the same time that technological advances have continually raised the bar for educated workers. Where once a high school diploma was a ticket to a good job, it is no more. Now, it’s simply a prerequisite for further education and training that has become increasingly necessary.
As the cost of a post-secondary education has risen, students from families of limited means have been forced to take out loans and the amount of college loan debt has skyrocketed to the point that — at $1 trillion — it eclipses all other forms of debt in America save home mortgages.
At a point where our nation increasingly needs an educated work force to compete in the global economy, we have made it more difficult for young people to get the education they need and we need them to have. Further, they come out of college strapped by debt, struggling to pay off the loans that were necessary to get them there and creating a drag on the overall economy.
This is why I applaud the action of President Obama to create and extend the PAYE program, limiting the impact of college debt on our young professionals and on our economy. If we expect to compete in an increasingly technological world, we need to have the work force to do it.
Thomas Jefferson said that an educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people. Making higher education affordable is in all our best interests.