The Higher Education Act of 1965

By Erica Dines

Education is a crucial part of culture that society could not function without. As the leadership of the country it is important for the government to ensure that the education system is as accessible and valuable as possible. One action taken by the American government to fulfill this purpose was the enactment of the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA). The HEA was an important piece of legislation which by providing financial assistance to under-privileged individuals increased the opportunity for previously unattainable education, leading to the betterment of society.

The Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA) was enacted on the eighth of November, 1965 (Pub. L 89-329), as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s social reform policy known as the “Great Society” (Cooley, 2011). In the preceding years President Roosevelt signed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (also known as the G.I. Bill) into law which began the involvement of the federal government in education (Swail, 2003). The purpose of this act was “to provide Federal Government aid for the readjustment in civilian life of returning World War II veterans” (Pub. L 346-268). Included in the aid for veterans was the opportunity to receive a higher education, financially provided by the federal government. The motive for this legislation was to counteract the potential of a new depression emerging from the millions of veterans that would face unemployment upon their return from the war (Mosch, 1975). After the success of this legislation President Johnson wanted to continue the rise of higher education and increase the number of educated individuals as a means to improve the conditions of society as a whole. Johnson said, “We need to do more . . . to extend the opportunity for higher education more broadly among lower and middle income families” (Swail, 2003). The HEA did just that.

The purpose of the HEA was (and still is) “to strengthen the resources of [our] colleges and universities and to provide financial assistance to students in postsecondary and higher education” (Pub. L 89-329). To accomplish this, the act established government funds to be used for program assistance for small and less developed colleges, additional and improved library resources at higher education institutions, and utilization of college and university resources to help deal with national problems like poverty and community development (McCants, 2003). In addition to community development and reversing the cycle of poverty, Johnson hoped education would act as a tool for economic growth and development (Cooley, 2011).

Title IV of the HEA is the section of the act which details student assistance by means of federal financial aid. It states:


(a) PURPOSE.—It is the purpose of this part, to assist in making available the benefits of postsecondary education to eligible students (defined in accordance with section 484) in institutions of higher education by—
(1) providing Federal Pell Grants to all eligible students;
(2) providing supplemental educational opportunity grants
to those students who demonstrate financial need;
(3) providing for payments to the States to assist them in
making financial aid available to such students;
(4) providing for special programs and projects designed
(A) to identify and encourage qualified youths with financial or
cultural need with a potential for postsecondary education,
(B) to prepare students from low-income families for postsecondary
education, and
(C) to provide remedial (including remedial language
study) and other services to students; and
(5) providing assistance to institutions of higher education.
(Pub. L 89-329, Sec. 400)

Providing financial aid to students of low-income status is beneficial on many different levels. This allows a greater amount of people to receive an education who otherwise would be unable. When someone is denied an education – due to an extenuating circumstance like money rather than intellectual ability or aspiration – it is not only detrimental to that individual’s life personally, but also to the advancement of knowledge and education as a whole; this disallows any intellectual advance or innovation to be made that could have positively affected society if the opportunity were present. The financial barriers that restricted a large portion of the population from receiving an education, in turn, restricted the potential of new intellectual minds to advance knowledge and improve society. The restriction of education based on monetary value rather than a value of intellectual merit and ambition is a restriction that proves very detrimental by its hindrance to the advancement of knowledge. Taking away this financial barrier is one way the HEA is beneficial to society. 

A study done by RAND (nonprofit institution that performs research and analysis) suggested that the societal benefits of education might even succeed the benefits reaped by the individuals. Upon intensive analysis of national data, the institution reported that “increases in education level resulted in improvements in social cohesion, technological innovations, and tangible intergenerational benefits that affect the entire society. In addition, reductions in crime and recidivism, Medicaid and Medicare costs, and other social costs are tied to education levels” (Swail, 2003). As a means to explain this societal benefit of education, this example was published in the report:

For every native-born Mexican woman who graduates from high school instead of dropping out, the nation would save $2,438 in social programs and would add $1,843 in public revenues in her 30th year. Similar savings and increases in public revenues would accrue annually over her lifetime. In addition, this woman would enjoy $2,588 more in disposable income during her 30th year. If this woman were to attend some college instead of stopping at high school, the result would be $956 more in program savings, $1,398 more in public revenues, and $2,401 more in disposable income at age 30. And graduating from college would add another $411 in program savings, $2,551 in public revenues, and $3,722 in disposable income [Vernez, Krop, and Rydell, 1999, p. 30].

This hypothetical scenario illustrates the many benefits of a single education. Not only would this benefit the person individually in the overall advantage of being educated and the monetary gain that accompanies it (disposable income), but society would benefit as well: thousands of dollars in welfare and social programs would be saved when the individual no longer needed to be supported by the government, and the economy would benefit because that individual would possess more disposable income to spend and put back into the economy. So society would directly benefit financially in money that would be saved and gained, in addition to the simple benefit of having one more educated, intellectual, member of society.

In addition to the many ways that the HEA positively impacts society, the act also provides opportunities which have the potential to drastically improve people’s lives. Education can have a profound impact on a person’s quality of life, especially in terms of financial gain and security. Through extensive study and survey it has been determined that education is one of the surest ways to increase one’s social and economic levels and overcome the barriers of poverty and deprived social conditions (Swail, 2000). According the U.S. Census Bureau, individuals with a bachelor’s degree earn about 77 percent more than that of high school graduates, and those with a professional degree earn 50 percent more than those with a bachelor’s degree. The difference in the long-run is even more astonishing: the difference in earning power between each level of education equates to about one million dollars over a lifetime.

The pattern can be summed up as such:
“There are no guarantees in life with or without a college
diploma . . . but . . . the odds are increasingly stacked against those with the least education and training. The more education one has, the more—on average—one earns . . . And this relationship has become conventional wisdom. People understand: who goes to college—and often which college—determines more than ever who has entrée to the best jobs and the best life chances” (Gladieux, 1998, p. 101).

It has also been found that “socioeconomic status is closely related to race and ethnicity” (Swail, 2003). On average, African Americans and Latinos earn less than two-thirds of what white households earn (U.S. Census Bureau, 2001). So, statistically, a large portion of the group classified as “low-income” is composed of minorities. Similarly, this means that a large number of minorities are unable to obtain a higher education due to financial incapability. With the help of the financial aid and other services made available through the HEA, institutions of higher education can be comprised of a broader allotment of students. This can be beneficial in the sense of increasing the cultural diversity at these institutions as well as simply reversing cycles of poverty, poor education, and underrepresentation among such groups. In addition, parts of the HEA are geared towards specifically helping minorities gain education – Title III of the act provides institutional aid for minority serving institutions (Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Tribal-Serving Institutions) and Title V provides aid for developing institutions (Hispanic serving institutions) (McCarthy, 2008). In these sections of the act the HEA provides support to the individuals in underprivileged minority groups as well as the institutions that most typically facilitate them.

Since its enactment the HEA has been reauthorized numerous times (in 1968, 1972, 1976, 1980, 1986, 1992, 1998 and after much extension in 2008 (McCants, 2003)). In the years since its beginning additional programs and funds have been added, language and policy of existing programs have been changed (McCants, 2003), and the legislation overall has been reformulated in a way to better accommodate to the evolving society and educational scene. The HEA has been an extremely influential and beneficial policy and has affected the world of education, the individuals that strive to exist within it, and American society as a whole in a positive way.


Cooley, Aaron. “Higher Education Act (HEA).” Higher Education Law. SAGE Publications, Inc., 5 Jan. 2011. Web. 10 Mar. 2012. <>.

Davies, G. (2001, Nov. 30). Higher education is a public health issue. Chronicle of Higher Education, p. B16.

Gladieux, L. E., and Swail, W. S. (1998). Postsecondary education: Student success, not just access. In S. Halperin (Ed.), The forgotten half revisited—1998 (pp. 101–114). Washington, DC: American Youth Policy Forum.

Higher Education Act of 1965. Pub. L 89-329. 8 November 1965. Print.

McCants, J. “The Early History of the Higher Education Act of 1965.” National Trio Clearing House and Council for Opportunity in Education, Feb. 2003. Web. 10 Mar. 2012.

McCarthy, Brittny. “The Higher Education Act: A Quick Review.” American Association of State Colleges and Universities, 19 Mar. 2008. Web. 11 Mar. 2012.

Mosch, Theodore. The G.I. Bill: A Breakthrough in Educational and Social Policy in the United States. Hicksville, NY: Exposition Press, 1975. 19, 40.New York Times, 8 April 1946, TINCF, R-95, F-759.

Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944. Pub. L 346-268. 10 January 1944. Print.

Swail, W. S. (2000). Preparing America’s disadvantaged for college: Programs that increase college opportunity. In A. F. Cabrera and S. M. La Nasa (Eds.), Understanding the college choice of disadvantaged student (pp. 85–101). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Swail, Watson Scott, Kenneth E. Redd, and Laura W. Perna. Retaining Minority Students in Higher Education. Rep. Ed. Adrianna J. Kezar. 2nd ed. Vol. 30. San Francisco: Wiley Subscription, 2003. Print. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report.

Vernez, G., Krop, R. A., and Rydell, C. P. (1999). Closing the education gap: Benefits and costs. Santa Monica, CA: RAND.