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Two Public Policies That Transformed Our Nation

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On Sunday, June 22, we will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the G.I. Bill becoming the law of the land. Innumerable individuals have benefitted from this far-sighted policy, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Those who blazed the trail by availing themselves of the G.I. Bill were certainly blessed personally and professionally, to be sure.

But consider the positive influences post-secondary education, and all of its collateral benefits, which have accrued to subsequent generations. For me, this is one of the most profound and lasting impacts of one of the greatest social policies ever devised in the 20th century.

The first generation of college-going Americans matriculated and earned their degrees. And, more often than not, a new level of expectation among their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, was established. A college degree became the portal to a better life full of immeasurable opportunity. And thus was ushered in an unprecedented age of prosperity in America inextricably linked to all the immense benefit of a more-educated populace and workforce.

For FDR, the United States of America owed those willing to sacrifice all they had with the one thing many of these enlisted men and women heretofore could never hope to access: a college degree. As Roosevelt himself stated in the months leading up to the Bill's enactment, "I believe that the Nation is morally obligated to provide this training and education and the necessary financial assistance by which they can be secured."

Roosevelt's vision of access to education was only matched by one of his predecessors over eight decades earlier when Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Morrill Act of 1862. This Civil War-era legislation created tens of state colleges and universities throughout America, the majority of which were public schools with the notable exception of private institutions: Cornell and M.I.T.

Consider this immutable fact: at some of the darkest moments of our nation's history -- the Civil War and World War II -- two prescient presidents helped enact two of the greatest social policies ever passed. And both had to do with post-secondary education. There is much to learn from the foresight of these two remarkable public servants and their unassailable belief in the power of education to change one's life and transform a nation.

My hope is that lawmakers, in particular, will take note of the examples of Lincoln and Roosevelt as we unfortunately continue to see a diminishing investment on the part of state legislatures across our country in their respective public institutions. As Benjamin Franklin asserted, "An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest."

It falls to us, particularly those at public higher education institutions where the large majority of American students study, to ensure two absolutely essential elements of post-secondary education as envisioned by the Morrill Act and the G.I. Bill: access and affordability.