The clash between liberal and conservative values in the U.S. has never been more prevalent than it is when manifested in policies to promote higher education.
The Higher Education Act of 1965 was one of the most meaningful pieces of educational legislation produced by Congress in its history.
There are few remnants from our liberal historic past that we value. The Higher Education Act is one of them.
In an era where national and federal educational policies and initiatives are questioned and criticized as burdensome, bureaucratic and overreaching, the federally legislated “Great Society” TRIO programs stand out like a beacon of effectiveness and efficiency and in direct contrast to this supposition.
A successful model that is simply stated and is undergirded by our most precious national value — education — has amassed the largest organized alumni of federal largesse. Despite years of sheepish acknowledgement by federal legislators and lukewarm recognition by the executive branch of government, the TRIO programs remain among the most successful federal initiatives to date.
As a nation, we have yet to mature to the level where we truly believe in the benefits of higher education and are willing to invest in its long-range benefits. We are still mired in the false promises of capitalist trickle-down economic theory and the potential of athletic prowess and entertainment gifts as the rationale for hope and prosperity.
There are some Americans who believe that education is a matter that should be the jurisdiction of the state and that the federal government has no role to play in its policies, programming or funding.
They quote the constitution as confirmation that the founding fathers’ sentiment was for smaller government. It pays homage to the fear of centralized government threatening first amendment rights and the contention that private enterprise holds the best answer for the prosperity of the nation.
They invoke their European past, playing to the so-called pioneering spirit and explorer independence of those who were quick to loathe a strong national government for fear it would result in a monarchist system like the one they left in Europe. But they were disingenuous because they themselves became ensnarled in a caste system in the so-called home of the brave and the free.
These political dinosaurs contend that national or federal systems stymied the freedoms of the local electorate and placed too many restrictions on their ability to engage in capitalism. A national education system would, in effect, limit the sovereignty of the states and, thus, limit the people’s freedom.
What freedoms were they referring to? Was it the freedom to provide for some and limit others?
Nevertheless, necessity, a national moral crisis over Jim Crow laws, institutional racism, unequal economic conditions and an impoverished and disadvantaged educational system prompted the nation to launch several initiatives to break down the barriers to equality of educational opportunity and to help the rising tide of citizen aspirations in the 1960s. The adoption of the TRIO programs in 1965 was the hallmark of those efforts to create a “Great Society.”
Now, some 50 years later, Americans have grown weary of these initiatives and are more concerned about disproportionate largess from the federal trough. Much has been written and said about the proliferation of government and its net benefit, but there is little doubt that the TRIO programs have been worth every penny.
Look around the community and see how many successful tax-paying citizens who can thank the TRIO programs (Upward Bound, Talent Search, Student Support Services, Educational Advancement Program, Educational Opportunity Center, Upward Bound Veterans, Upward Bound Math/Science and Ronald McNair) for helping them achieve success in life.
And an examination of the nation’s history reveals that without the federal government’s influence and money, the United States would have fallen further behind the rest of the world in educational attainment had it not been for the TRIO Programs.
What we need now is a significant increase in investment in TRIO programs, not a reduction. TRIO is one of the few models to stand the test of time and prosperity. TRIO produces successful human beings, period.
What was once the vanguard of the educational opportunity movement and the worldwide movement symbol for upward mobility has now become a model for successful people all over the world.
The nation needs to embrace us now and discard the consumer-driven impulses of excess and greed. We should not trade in our desire to buy more for our need to know more. The true road to zero unemployment, and thus a need for lots of government, is to make everybody a capitalist, and thus independent to the unpredictable market forces. Education is the road to independence. Invest now. The TRIO budget is now approximately $850 million, and it should be tripled to $3 billion, precipitating an avalanche of new students, creating tax paying, productive adults and adding to the net value of our educational institutions.
The quality of our colleges and universities would grow in stature as additional TRIO students would be on campus attaining the essential experience they need to develop. We could reduce the number of persons who find themselves depending on propriety and electronic institutions.
Congress should seriously consider the value added in pursuing the option to invest in TRIO programs, thereby stimulating production as opposed to reducing overall expenditures, inducing economic contraction.
Dr. Ronald B. McFadden is director of the Ronald McNair Post Baccalaureate Achievement Program at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.
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