The History Behind the Higher Education Act of 1965

Much of what we know about the government’s role in higher education can be traced back to the Higher Education Act of 1965. This legislation was enacted as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s "Great Society" social agenda, which aimed to eradicate poverty and racial injustice. The "Great Society" agenda created programs that addressed higher education, urban issues and transportation. Johnson signed the law at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas, which was called Southwest Texas State Teacher’s College at the time.

The law aims to "strengthen the educational resources of our colleges and universities and to provide financial assistance for students in post secondary and higher education." The law’s most notable features include the creation of scholarships, allocation of more federal funds for colleges and universities, availability of low-interest loans for students seeking higher education and the creation of a National Teaching Corps. Although no longer in existence, the NTC provided highly trained teachers to low-income and socially unstable areas of the country. To qualify for the above mentioned loans or financial assistance from the government, students must complete and submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) questionnaire each year. Federal financial assistance can come in the form of Pell Grants, Federal SEOG Grants, SMART Grants, Federal Work-Study Program, Federal Stafford Loans and Federal PLUS Loans to name a few.

Because of the nature of this particular law, Congress has had to reapprove of it every five years since its inception. During this time, there have been changes made in both 1998 and in 2003. In 1998, the GEAR-UP program was created. Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs is a collection of scholarship and outreach programs geared toward students entering an undergraduate degree program. Also created in 1998 was a provision of the HEA that prohibited students with prior drug charges or convictions from receiving federal funding for higher education. This provision is currently being contested in court by the American Civil Liberties Union.

In 2003, an alliance of minority higher education organizations gathered to band together to ask for certain changes in the HEA. The Alliance for Equity in Higher Education represented several minorities, including American Indians, Hispanics and African Americans. They asked Congress to provide loan leniency and greater federal funding to minority programs in hopes of promoting higher education amongst minority groups.

The creation and subsequent preapprovals of the Higher Education Act has allowed many students to attend college that might have previously been unable to do so.

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