Honoring the Higher Education Act and the Continued Struggle for Accessible Education

A Black male college student writes at a classroom whiteboard

“Higher education is no longer a luxury, but a necessity,” President Lyndon B. Johnson said as he signed the Higher Education Act into law on November 8, 1965. The Higher Education Act was part of Johnson’s Great Society program — a multitude of laws and federal programs dedicated to eradicating poverty in the United States. 

The Higher Education Act created many programs and provisions to support low-income students. This included helping fund key federal student aid programs like the federal work-study program and the National Teacher Corps, which aimed to improve elementary and secondary teaching in predominantly low-income areas. 

In addition, the Higher Education Act authorized a program of federal funding to assist developing higher education institutions, including Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), strengthen their academic and administration capacity. HBCUs existed for many years before the Higher Education Act, but the new federal financial support allowed HBCUs to increase their capacity and ensure a full range of postsecondary options for students.

The State of Higher Education Today

Funding for higher education continues to be an issue. 

While state and federal governments have long been the source of financial support for higher education, their levels of contribution have shifted, according to Pew Research Center. For example, in the 2017 school year, funding for state schools was still historically low. That year, state funding for public two- and four-year colleges was nearly $9 billion below its 2008 level, accounting for inflation. 

At the same time, costs for higher education continue to increase. At U.S. public universities, tuition increased 171% over the past 20 years. This lack of federal funding has played a role in  many universities making tough decisions like limiting class offerings and reducing faculty, according to a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. 

​​Making Education Available — and Affordable — for Everyone

Robert F. Smith recognizes the burden of student loans on students and their families, and in 2019, he committed to eliminating the student loan debt of 400 students in the graduating class at Morehouse College.

“It’s a catastrophe in the way that we are running our financial system as it relates to these young people’s opportunities at a time when they have to have, in my view, more opportunity to innovate to compete globally,” Smith said in an interview with Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation. 

Smith also serves as chairman of Student Freedom Initiative, a nonprofit working to benefit students, and helped start the program with a personal contribution of $50 million, which matched a $50 million contribution from the Fund II Foundation, of which Smith is founding director and President. The Initiative offers flexible, lower-risk alternatives to high-interest private student loans to college seniors and juniors studying Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) at its first group of nine historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), a number which continues to grow.

“Through the Student Freedom Initiative, we hope to give Black students access to the education they need to move forward in this economy without the burden of student loan debt stopping them from realizing their fullest potential,” said Robert F. Smith during the launch of its inaugural program. “While our community continues to face inequities that too often bar young students of color from accessing quality higher education, the Student Freedom Initiative aims to empower our students with the tools they need to control their financial futures.”

Learn more about Robert F. Smith’s work with Student Freedom Initiative.