President Lyndon Johnson signed the Higher Education Act (HEA) on November 8, 1965. The ceremony occurred before a packed house at his alma mater, Southwest Texas State College (now Texas State University-San Marcos). With his wife, Lady Bird, by his side, and surrounded by faculty, students, and administrators, Johnson gave prefatory remarks that were solemn yet optimistic: "The president's signature upon this legislation passed by this Congress will swing open a new door for the young people of America. For them, and for this entire land of ours, it is the most important door that will ever open — the door to education."
The $3 billion act marked the culmination of three decades of federal support for research funding and student aid that stretched across the New Deal, World War II, and the Cold War. One title provided aid for land grant urban extension programs; two titles offered assistance for construction projects; another title created the Teachers Corps; and another lent support to historically black colleges. But it was the student assistance title (Title IV) and its trio of aid options — work study, loans, and grants — that revolutionized college-going in this country, helping tens of millions of Americans go to college. It was the key to opening Johnson’s "door to education."
This year the act is again up for reauthorization, and for the first time in recent memory there exists genuine concern that the door the act opened is starting to shut. The "cost crisis" in higher education, now more than four decades in the making, has finally come home to roost. Since the economic crisis hit five years ago, state appropriations have plummeted and tuition has climbed. Spiraling dropout rates and student debt combined with reports of "limited learning" in college and high unemployment after have upped the anxiety level. Recent polls indicate that the American people are worried about paying for college and unsure whether it’s still a worthwhile investment, even though all the evidence indicates that earning a degree today matters more than ever.
In last month’s State of the Union Address,  President Obama said he intended to "ask Congress to change the Higher Education Act so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid." With an agenda already loaded down by sequestration, gun control and immigration reform, this will be very hard to do. But let’s assume that the act is overhauled and changes are made to the current financial aid system. It’s worth speculating what this new regulatory regime might look like. That it might end up bearing a family resemblance to No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the decade-old K-12 accountability model built on Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), should give pause to those of us who care about higher education.
The fundamentals of NCLB are well-known. In exchange for federal Title I funding, the states must annually test students in math and reading in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and all students must be "proficient" in these subjects by 2014, unless your state received a waiver from the Department of Education. Schools that fail to make adequate "annual yearly progress" face increasingly severe sanctions: staff can be fired and a new curriculum installed, and if improvements aren’t made, failing schools can be restructured or even closed. While the results of NCLB have been mixed — gains in one place offset by losses in another — there is no doubt that regulation of this sort would harm American higher education. The strength of the U.S. system lies in the autonomy and freedom it affords and in the wide range of institutional and pricing options that it provides. This is rarely acknowledged. The media home in on what are actually outlier institutions, like Harvard University or the University of California at Berkeley, cite anecdotal evidence, then generalize across the whole sector, as if all institutions are the same and all students have identical educational goals.
Most students don't go to residential colleges or have endless free time. Most students aren’t 18 to 21 years of age and most students don’t graduate in four years. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Most students in this country go to a broad access four-year public institution or a two-year community college. Most students commute to class and work part time. And 40 percent of students are from low-income households.
All of which is to say that if new measures are passed to hold "colleges accountable for cost, value, and quality," as the White House has since described it, they will not affect all students or institutions the same. At wealthy colleges that attract exceptionally well-prepared students it will be business as usual no matter what happens. Not so at broad access institutions. Just as the burden of NCLB has been borne most by poor students and districts, similarly styled higher education reform will mean even more obstacles for "those who aspire to the middle class" — poor, racial and ethnic minorities, and first-generation students whose college options are already limited.
The president’s reluctance to address the link between poverty and education is notable, since the ESEA and the HEA were the main fronts of Johnson’s "unconditional war on poverty." The Educational Opportunity Grant, forerunner of the Pell Grant, was the HEA’s silver bullet, targeting students of "exceptional financial need" to help them earn a college diploma. Passed the year after the Civil Rights Act barred discrimination by any institution that received public funds, the HEA fueled the enrollment of African Americans and other underserved populations. Roughly 160,000 African Americans were in college in 1960, the majority of them at a historically black college or university (HBCU); by 1975 more than a million African Americans were in school, most of them outside the HBCU network.
In retrospect, the late 1970s was the golden age of college access, when the portable Pell Grant actually covered half the cost of a college education, as it was intended to do, and African Americans and other minority groups reaped the benefits of equal opportunity. It didn’t last. By the mid-1980s, loans eclipsed grants as the government’s preferred aid instrument, supplemented later by tax credits, tax-deferred 529 college saving plans, and state and institutional merit aid programs that have disproportionately benefited middle- and upper-income families. All the while the purchasing power of the Pell Grant has withered and the education gap has grown, impoverishing us all.
This brings us to our current moment and the various NCLB-inspired plans to tie aid to cost, value, and quality — that is, to outcomes and accountability rather than access and opportunity. This shift in priorities will not only hurt poor students but the entire higher education system. Colleges will be less willing to take chances on students that can’t pay full freight or look like they won’t graduate on time, leading to greater economic stratification and the end of student diversity as we’ve known it. Professors will feel even more pressure to pass students along regardless of the work they do, thus making rampant grade inflation worse. Administrators will be apt to massage student data to improve their institutional outcomes and rankings. And parents will demand that their students pursue pre-professional degrees with the strongest employment prospects, further marginalizing the liberal arts and other "blue sky" fields that offer less immediate "bang for the buck," turning them into wealthy majors for those who can afford idle cogitation. Meanwhile, ever greater numbers of poor students will cluster around the least desirable yet most expensive diploma mills, resulting in even more young people being left behind.
Are these doomsday scenarios far-fetched? Not really. Some of these things are already happening, now. But we’re not going to solve these issues by following policy makers and self-anointed reformers who want an aid model based on outcomes rather than opportunity. Simply put, higher education is setting itself up for failure by making promises it will not be able to keep. Does anyone really believe that we can create a system where every student who enters college graduates four years later with a degree, debt-free? Or that we can have classrooms where all students learn the same amount and in the same way? Or that every college graduate will land the job of her dreams? Higher education has never, ever done that. Not in the 19th century or in the 20th. And it never will.
Rather than creating more problems, we should mine the past for approaches that we know will keep "the door to education" open. The Pell Grant should be expanded and restored to its full purchasing power. To pay for it, regressive education tax credits favoring high earners should be abandoned and along with it financial aid to for-profit education providers, where the dropout, debt and default rates are highest and always have been. Colleges should be required to provide applicants with easy access to real pricing information to help with the choice process. And the income-based loan repayment program should be streamlined and a national service program created to put college graduates to work. After all, we don’t just need doctors, lawyers, engineers, and scientists; we also need teachers, artists, historians, and community organizers.
The challenge of our lifetime remains the problem of poverty. But to meet that challenge requires acknowledging that it exists. Lyndon Johnson knew that a truly great society was not possible "until every young mind is set free to scan the farthest reaches of thought and imagination." This remains as true today as it was then, and so too does Johnson’s fair warning: “We are still far from that goal.”
Christopher P. Loss teaches at Vanderbilt University and is the author of Between Citizens and the State: The Politics of American Higher Education in the 20th Century  (Princeton University Press, 2012). This year he is a visiting scholar at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, where he is working on a book about academic expertise and its challengers in the post-1945 United States.