When President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Higher Education Act in November 1965, the setting he chose spoke as loudly as his words. Johnson inked the bill at his alma mater, Southwest Texas State Teachers College in San Marcos, Texas (now Texas State University), behind a desk he had used while working for the school administration to help pay his way. "I want you to go back," he told his audience, "and say to your children, and to your grandchildren ... that we have opened the road "... and we expect them to travel it."
Nearly 50 years later, the nation has advanced toward Johnson's soaring vision of democratizing access to higher education. In 1970, 46 percent of high school graduates from families in the bottom quarter of the income scale proceeded directly to college; now 62 percent do. The share of African-Americans aged 25 to 29 holding college degrees is about three times larger now than in the early 1970s; Hispanics have gained nearly as much.
President Lyndon Johnson signs the Higher Education Act at Southwest Texas State College on November 8, 1965. (LBJ Library photo by Frank Wolfe)But other trends are more discouraging. With tuition steadily rising, debt from student loans has skyrocketed. African-American, Hispanic, and low-income students who start college remain much less likely to finish than students from white or affluent families. One reason, as the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce has documented, is that most African-American and Hispanic students are channeled into the public colleges with the least resources, while the most selective schools that spend significantly more per student remain as preponderantly white as two decades ago. Higher education stands in the American imagination as the great escalator for upward mobility. But our colleges and universities now do as much to stratify as to dislodge privilege.