Just six decades ago, American higher education was almost exclusively reserved for upper class women. Today, middle class and low-income students can go to college, although keeping college affordable is a major challenge. But women have made major inroads. During the academic year 2012-13, women constituted a remarkable 57 percent of all U.S. college students. If we are going to keep college affordable to everyone, we need to understand how we got here. Federal government policies and programs led the way in creating these huge changes in access to college.
Until World War II, higher education remained largely an elite pursuit. There was little government support for people hoping to pursue postsecondary education.
The era of mass access began for men first. The 1944 G.I. Bill helped more than 2 million returning World War II veterans attend college or pursue vocational training. For the first time, government helped open college doors on a large scale to the offspring of middle- and low-income families. Still, women were largely left out. 97 percent of the beneficiaries were men.
Without help from the G.I. Bill, women needed private resources to afford college, yet families — mostly white families since colleges were still racially segregated — often invested more money in their sons on the grounds that young women would likely waste their education by exiting the labor force upon marriage or after having children. Female students also faced limited opportunities to work, exclusions from private scholarships and discriminatory quotas in college admissions. Fully one-third of high-achieving women from low-income families were unable to enter college between 1945 and 1960, compared to 10 percent of high-achieving, low-income males who could not attend.
Fortunately, beginning in the late 1950s, U.S. lawmakers passed landmark legislation that ended up greatly advantaging college-ready women in a kind of one-two punch against discrimination.
The first blow came with gender-neutral student loans and grants. For the first time, the National Defense Education Act of 1958 made college loans widely available to non-veterans, including women, tens of thousands of whom soon pursued degrees. The Higher Education Act of 1965 expanded loans and authorized Pell Grants for very needy students. Over the next five years, more than 2 million women and men used such aid to pursue degrees, with millions more soon to follow.
Federal college aid matters. Statistical analysis suggests that men and women alike who use federal student loans are 15 percent more likely to complete a four-year degree. Men who use these need-based Pell grants are 12 percent more likely to earn bachelors’ degrees, while women’s are 8 percent more likely.
Federal aid made college more affordable, but women still had to gain admission, and it was there that they faced discrimination. In 1964, for example, 21,000 women who applied to colleges in the state of Virginia were denied admission, even as all male applicants were admitted. Invoking conventional wisdom about men as principal family breadwinners, many institutions required successful women applicants to have higher grades.
The second federal punch against gender inequality was Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments, and the federal regulations which followed it, which together barred discrimination against women in any education institution that accepted federal financial assistance, with dramatic effects at the graduate as well as undergraduate level. Before Title IX, for instance, women received only 9 percent of medical degrees and seven percent of law degrees conferred in the United States, but by 1997 the respective percentages had shot up to 38 and 43 percent.
Title IX reads like a part of the Constitution: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance…”
Taken together, these federal laws and actions paved the way for women to overtake men in earning basic college degrees, even as the percentage of college graduates of both genders rose significantly.
Today, lawmakers in Washington are considering reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, but in typical congressional fashion, the bill is stalled by partisan bickering. In the context of skyrocketing college costs, they should use reauthorization as an opportunity to increase the amount of aid provided by Pell Grants and student loan programs. A failure to do so will jeopardize the government’s ability to foster equal opportunity in American higher education.
Deondra Rose is a Moreau Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Notre Dame and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.
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