As the Cold War heated up and the space race took hold of the national imagination, the president and Congress worried about the quality of the public schools and the ability of the nation to compete internationally in science (yes, this is not unique to the 21st century). To facilitate the nation's competitiveness, Congress adopted the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1963.
The law provided a substantial infusion of federal funds for K-12 education. Within two years, the education budget more than doubled to $4 billion — a sum that school districts found impossible to ignore.
The new education law, however, went even further when it became linked to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which barred federal funds from any institution that discriminated on the basis of race. Together, these laws gave the federal government the power to end the costly and ineffective dual, segregated school system in the South.
The ramifications of both laws were historic and dramatic. By 1970, most Southern schools had been integrated as a result, and the quality of Southern schools took a giant leap forward.
Just in the last two weeks, President Barack Obama has proposed a series of reforms that are designed to transform higher education in a similar manner. By most accounts, higher education in America is in crisis and in desperate need of the same kind of dramatic reform introduced in the 1960s.
The collective student loan debt in the United States, for example, is more than $1 trillion, with default rates increasing exponentially. More than two-thirds of bachelor degree recipients borrow money to complete their degree, and they average $27,000 in loans that must be repaid upon graduation. Most students don't graduate from college within six years, and about half of students who start college fail to ever graduate. Well over half of U.S. universities have six-year graduation rates that are under 40 percent.
Meanwhile universities — both public and private — have been steadily raising tuition for the past 35 years. Jeffrey Selingo, editor at large for the Chronicle of Higher Education and author of an exceptional book about the current state of higher education, reports that annual costs at four-year colleges have risen three times the rate of inflation since the 1970s. At the same time, the relatively new players on the block — for-profit schools — have taken both student and taxpayer dollars with minimal return on investment.
"At the colleges and universities attended by most American students, costs are spiraling out of control and quality is declining just as increasing international competition demands that higher education become more productive and less expensive," Selingo summarizes succinctly.
Obama's plan to bring transparency and accountability to postsecondary education is long overdue and has the potential to change all that. By withholding federal financial aid subsidies from students attending unproductive colleges, the plan offers the chance: (1) to improve those universities in need of and capable of reform; (2) to recognize those that are national leaders; and (3) to result in closing those institutions that should never have existed in the first place.
America's best universities have been the engine of our economic growth, the basis for our international economic leadership, and fundamental to our national security for the past 60 years. They have also attracted the best and brightest to the United States.
They were able to accomplish all this because they were accessible and affordable for young men and women from all walks of life. They gave hope to those who grew up in poor homes or who immigrated to the United States. And they delivered on the hope and promise.
Today, that access and opportunity is in jeopardy unless real reforms are implemented. Like the federal government's role in reforming public education in the 1960s, the ways it uses financial aid to improve the quality of higher education is not just an economic necessity, it is essential to mobility in America and the nation's leadership in the world.
David R. Colburn is the director of the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida. He can be reached at email@example.com. Brian Dassler is chief academic officer, New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, a public school serving students from across Louisiana. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. They wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.