Education beyond high school is essential for Americans to prosper in the 21st century. Looking into the past, we have seen the majority of those earning a college degree or other postsecondary credential achieve higher earnings, quality of life, civic engagement, and other positive outcomes. Looking ahead, we see a new future where the vast majority of jobs will require some level of postsecondary education. From either perspective, it’s clear that “college for all” should become our national aspiration. The question is how best to achieve that goal.
Many of the success stories that produced these good outcomes for individuals and our country are the result of Americans who got their postsecondary education and training for free in the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s. The Rice Institute, now Rice University in Texas, was free to its students until the 1960s. SUNY and CUNY in New York State were virtually free until the 1980s. The same was true for the University of California, the California State Universities, and the California Community Colleges. Many states made sure that the returning World War II veterans and the next two generations had access to a free postsecondary education.
And it shouldn’t be a surprise that our nation’s economy boomed, along with America’s civic health. In fact, when President Franklin Roosevelt signed the GI Bill in 1944 and President Eisenhower signed the National Defense Student Loan legislation in 1958, millions of veterans, women, and minorities came to college because they could afford it and knew their education beyond high school would make a significant difference in their future livelihood. They bought cars, took out home loans, worked hard, and advanced in their careers. They weren’t burdened by enormous college debt. At the same time, trust in one another and key institutions, as well as civic habits of volunteering, voting and charitable giving, were also on the rise among this Greatest Generation. During this era, the U.S. was first in the world for its college graduates, outpacing Germany, the U.K., and other OECD countries.