|As a student financial aid director at a struggling private college in Illinois in the early 1970s, I had the responsibility of ensuring that students could finance their college educations without incurring loan obligations that would inhibit their personal and professional futures while assuring that the institution itself survived. Angst over student loan debt is not a new development.
During the Cold War, improved access to higher education for all Americans became a national security issue. Soviet Union successes (launching “Sputnik” in 1957, Gagarin’s sub-orbital flight in 1961) persuaded Congress that without increased educational opportunities for American students our nation would fall behind, threatening our very existence. Underscoring that the USA would be a collateral beneficiary of improved access to education, the original Congressional Statement of Legislative Intent (SLI) held that “no worthy student should be denied an education due to personal financial resources.”
The Educational Opportunity Grant (now Pell Grant) was established for students from adjusted growth incomes below $9000; College Work – Study with a federal match (75% from feds, 25% from employer) provided student jobs on campus.
Congress also established the National Defense Student Loan (NDSL) Program (forerunner to today’s Perkins Loan), targeting students with demonstrable financial need, regardless of income. NDSL provided up to $1000 per year @ 3% simple interest with 10 years to repay beginning one year after leaving school. To incentivize students’ entry into the teaching profession, a stated goal of NDSL, Congress created forgiveness options: after 10 years, a schoolteacher’s debt could be reduced by half. If one taught at a defined “special needs” school, the entire loan could be forgiven. Colleges could re-lend the proceeds from loan collections to future students. The forgiveness features and the increasing demand for NDSL did require annual supplemental appropriations from Congress, often very reluctantly.
Students for whom college managed aid programs were insufficient to meet educational expenses were directed to other loan programs, with stiffer terms. Federally subsidized private bank loans were characterized by higher interest rates, less time to repay, and no forgiveness options. Budgetary concerns led ensuing Administrations and Congress emphasize students’ “investing” in their “own” futures, abandoning the original proposition that the education of our population should ALWAYS be considered a national security issue. That was good news for the offspring of the privileged “elite” because it tilted the playing field for college admissions decidedly in their favor, but not for those for whom stifling college debt risked limiting their personal and professional ambitions.
Financial assistance for many professional education and training programs are essential today. Forgiveness of at least some student debt should be possible for those that perform a prescribed level of service to the nation, be it military, health care, education, etc. Those fretting about the cost of educational access for all should consider the price tag for an untrained, under-educated population that might be easy prey for malign actors, whether foreign or domestic.
Educational access again seems central to our national security. But wasn’t it always?