The Higher Education Act: A Sound Investment in Our Collective Future

By Linda LeMura, Ph.D., President of Le Moyne College

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Among the most critical components of President Lyndon Johnson’s domestic policy agenda, widely known to most Americans as the Great Society, was the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965. The aim of this ambitious piece of legislation was to strengthen the country by bolstering one of its most precious resources: its colleges and universities. It increased the funding available to institutions of higher education and provided students with the financial assistance many needed to pursue a degree. The HEA contained numerous provisions, including those to aid developing institutions, improve the quality of instruction, and provide students with scholarships, low-interest loans, and work-study opportunities. It was a profound expression of faith in the power of higher education and its unparalleled capacity to shape our collective future.

Since the HEA was signed into law 50 years ago, it has been reauthorized nine times. The members of the U.S. House and Senate are in the midst of doing so again. The HEA remains today, as it was at its founding, vital to our nation’s security and prosperity. Our world is changing rapidly, and the need for sustained, innovative and agile thinking—just as the need to invest in higher educationhas never been more pronounced than it is today. Pope Francis has weighed in on the pivotal role education plays in our well-being, remarking, "…We are living in an information-driven society which bombards us indiscriminately with dataall treated as being of equal importanceand which leads to remarkable superficiality in the area of moral discernment. In response, we need to provide an education which teaches critical thinking and encourages the development of mature moral values.”

At Jesuit colleges and universities, we take pride in forming young men and women who are not just successful professionals, but who are also intelligent, creative and compassionate global citizens. That is our imprimatur. It guides us in each and every thing we do. We accept this awesome responsibility because of our deep conviction that our world urgently needs the kind of students we prepare, people who are both servants and leaders. The great joy in our work stems from the fact that there is no telling how far these young people can go and what they can accomplish if simply given the opportunity to avail themselves of a Jesuit education.

We also recognize that, for the overwhelming majority of American families, a college education is a very serious investment. Resources are finite. It has long been a tenet at Le Moyne College – and at our 27 sister schools around the United States – that no student should be denied the benefit of a Jesuit education simply because he or she cannot afford it. During the 2014-15 academic year, Le Moyne committed approximately $37 million, or about one-third of our overall budget, to financial aid. That helped approximately 93 percent of our students fund their educations. This strategic investment has enabled us to build a campus community that is rich in diversity, and which reflects the world into which our students will graduate. We are not alone in making these investments. During the 2012-13 academic year, 60 percent of all need-based aid at Jesuit institutions came from institutional grants and scholarships, and totaled $1.2 billion.

We are proud of these investments, and rightly so. However, the sobering reality is that they are often not enough. Many of our students rely on additional support, in particular Federal Pell Grants, which are based on family income and funded through the HEA. During the 2014-15 academic year, 919 Le Moyne students, or approximately 32 percent of our undergraduates, received Pell Grants totaling $3.8 million to aid them in financing their educations. Of those, 369 received the maximum amount allowed by the government. Without those funds, many of those low-income students would have been forced to borrow more money to finance their educations, increase their work hours during the academic year to levels that leave insufficient time for their studies or, most devastatingly, leave the College without their degrees.

Providing students with a quality, affordable education is a major part of our mission. The Pell Grant program plays a key role in helping us to reach that aim. It is also extraordinarily successful. Of those students who entered U.S. colleges and universities for the first time in the Fall of 2006, only about half, 54.1 percent, graduated within six years. By comparison, 70.8 percent of Pell Grant recipients who enrolled in Jesuit colleges at that time graduated within six years.

During my inaugural address in March, I shared my belief that “a Jesuit education is not meant to be a luxury, or the capstone to a life of leisure.“ Rather, it is intended to be “the armor that will allow all studentsfrom all backgrounds and meansto thrive in a sometimes dangerous, always challenging world.” It is part of our commitment to social justice to provide a high-quality education to students of limited means. Years before President Johnson signed the HEA into law, his predecessor, President John F. Kennedy, said this: “The goal of education is the advancement of knowledge and the dissemination of truth.”

What cause is nobler, or investment more worthy?