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The Role of Public Policy in Higher Education

Higher education in this country has a good track record. I am the dean of the governors in terms of my tenure in office - or I will be at the end of this year when Terry Branstead of Iowa completes his term. When I look back over the last several decades in my state and across this nation, it is clear what has happened in the main to change this country. One of the great engines that literally transformed America after World War II was the GI Bill. For the first time in history, the children of average people - the sons and daughters of farmers and mechanics - could get a college degree. Of course, the veterans received other kinds of education, such as skills training. I can remember the vets working at night at a vocational education center in my community. The lights were on in the shops. They were learning skills. But the point is, every American after the GI Bill could begin to aspire to attend college, and they did by the tens of thousands. Not only did they get college educations, but others in their families began to say, “That can be for us.” And I can remember when a lot of the graduates who stepped up on stage to receive their diplomas were the first ones in their families to do so. It began with the GI Bill and with the idea that all of the people who had served this country, people so valuable to us as a society, should have a chance to attend college.

The GI Bill provided hundreds of thousands of people with unprecedented opportunity to learn. It created the educated population that propelled our nation into world leadership. It made possible the great American middle class. It gave people who had been left out a chance to strive, to climb the ladder, and to aspire to be the best. It contributed to the tenacious growth of democratic values and institutions that eventually won the Cold War and put this nation in the position it is in today, clearly the leading nation in the world - but one whose potential is still unfulfilled.

Think for a moment about what we’ve accomplished during the past few decades, about the opportunity and prosperity we have created in this country - even though we need to create more opportunity, especially in certain places. Ever since the veterans went to college, our society has provided each generation with successively greater opportunities to get a higher education. I suggest that nothing has meant more to America becoming today’s great economic powerhouse. As in no other nation, the young people in America have been able to develop their talents and their intellect through public and private two-year and four-year institutions of higher learning. No politician or party or political ideology deserves credit for this transformation. It was the American people who wanted it done, and in large measure it was higher education that did it and has helped us progress in the years since.

The doors of opportunity in America open directly into the classrooms, labs, and libraries, directly into the colleges and universities where you work, teach and are administrators - where you’re guiding people all the time. We must open those doors much wider, I suggest to you, if our nation is to be what it can and must be for our children and grandchildren.


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© 1998 The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education

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