One of the big issues in politics right now is the cost of college and student debt. Among the Democrats running for president, some are calling for free college and others are looking to pay off student loans. There is some history on this subject, but there is also some personal history. Loans are something I know too well.
When American soldiers came home from World War I, they had a difficult time rejoining their old lives. With so many men returning at once, it was difficult finding a job because factories were cutting production after the war. Many others found their jobs filled by black Americans who moved north during the Great Migration from the South.
To help relieve some of the suffering, Congress passed the Bonus Act of 1924, giving soldiers a $1.25 bonus for every day they served. The problem was the payment was deferred to 1945. In the midst of the Great Depression, 15,000 veterans—the so-called "Bonus Army"—marched on Washington, demanding their bonuses. When Congress denied their appeal, most of the "Army" returned home, but those who remained were driven out. President Hoover claimed they had been infiltrated by communists and anarchists.
With World War II, Roosevelt wanted to do better for the current soldiers at war and the G.I. Bill was born. Among other things, the G.I. Bill paid for college for returning veterans. For the first time in our nation's history, working class Americans could afford to attend college. By the mid-1950s into the 1960s, almost half of college students were using the G.I. Bill.
In the 1960s came the space race, and the federal government decided we were lagging behind the Russians in school and made education a priority. The National Science Foundation alone gave $500 million to pay for education, especially in STEM fields.
Today, higher education is still as important, but also incredibly expensive. It seems as if universities are raising costs each year. There are many reasons for this that I do not have time to explore. Some are positive; some are not. Uncle Sam can still foot the bill with the G.I. paying for college if you are willing to serve in the military. But for many low-and middle-class citizens, the cost of college is just not worth the return.
One of the problems I see today is the need to attend large state universities. I understand the appeal. I earned my master's and Ph.D. from such schools and I loved their atmosphere, especially during football season. Yet when I hear complaints about the cost of schools, I question why students are not looking at other options. This is going to seem like an advertisement for my school, but it just happens to be a good example. I know not having a football team in Oklahoma seems like heresy, but I teach at a small public liberal arts university that is much cheaper and has a smaller student body and class sizes. Also, all our classes are taught by professors, not grad students, and we focus on undergraduate research. Yet the large universities are full and turning away students while we have room for more.
When it comes to government interference with college, I am of two minds. Free college does not seem fiscally possible for the government. As for loans, when the borrowers took them, they knew they had to pay them back, just like any other transaction. Yet now that I have a senior in high school, I am starting to see the college experience in a different light from my almost 20 years of being a professor.
A little personal history: I have a son starting his senior year and, like many of you, is starting the process of applying to colleges. What a pain! My son has autism. He is intelligent and high functioning, but his special needs limit our college options. We need a college near family that also has the program he wants. Although he has three sets of grandparents who each live by small colleges that would work, only the one in Southern Utah has the program.
I have three children. I work at an amazing but small university while my wife is a public-school teacher, so basically, I have always told my children they needed to earn scholarships to pay for college. I am lucky to have great kids who take their schooling seriously. My senior has done everything that could be expected of him, even with difficulties. He has a 4.2 GPA, is a standout on the academic team, takes AP and college classes, and is even an Eagle Scout. I felt we were covered for a smaller regional school like the one in Utah. Yet what I found out is that scholarships are rewarded based solely on his GPA (they only accept up to 4.0) and the dreaded ACT. Again, my son put in due diligence on this test. He took a prep class, had some private tutoring, and did all the online practicing, yet all three times he took the test he did not score high enough. His individual subject scores went up and down, but when he went up in one area, he went down in another. If they took the top scores from each subject (which they don't), he would receive a full scholarship, but as it stands right now he only qualifies for in-state tuition. He has done everything in his power, everything that can be expected of him. But because of one test, academic scholarships are off the table.
This is not meant to be a sob story; my life is no different than most out there who work hard and try to do what's best for our kids. What it does tell me is that some change is needed. Not sure what those are, but we have to stop weighing down our kids with a financial burden of debt just as they are preparing to start their lives. I am not saying government should take care of everything. There is something to the idea of college students earning their own way and taking matters more seriously if they have a stake. Yet I have also experienced too many good students fall behind or drop out because they were simply working so hard to pay for school that they could not keep up with their academic load. Historically speaking, there are times the government has stepped in to assist or regulate. Maybe now is another time, like the 1940s and 1960s, we can reemphasize the need for education and make some changes.
James Finck is an associate professor of history at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org