The modern approach by which students finance higher education in the United States grew around three policies—federal scholarships, federal work-study funding, and federally guaranteed loans—like vines around a trellis. Yet half a century later, many young Americans feel that former President Johnson’s signature education initiative has saddled them with excess debt and delayed their graduation into middle-class adulthood.
The Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011 started as a cacophony of disparate complaints against the financial sector but eventually coalesced around college debt. The idea of forgiving student loans has since moved from poster boards on the streets of Manhattan and D.C. to the campaign websites of Democratic presidential candidates, with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) promising to wipe out student debt for all borrowers and former Vice President Joe Biden pledging to expand existing loan forgiveness programs.
Johnson wanted future generations to think of the Higher Education Act of 1965 as a promise from the federal government: “Tell them that we have opened the road and we have pulled the gates down and the way is open, and we expect them to travel it.” He and the 89th Congress paved that road with the best intentions, and many millions of young people have indeed traveled along it. Why, then, do so many Americans who have participated in our system of financing higher education feel like they’ve been ripped off?
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