For much of this country’s history, higher education and many of its critical components—access to texts and literary tradition, instruction in critical thinking, a sense of how we got from the past to the present—was and were reserved for the wealthy. Many fields of study, and the social and financial opportunities they opened up, simply weren’t available to the average citizen. With some notable exceptions, if your parents weren’t well off, higher education was probably beyond your reach, regardless of your talent. However, in the second half of the 20th century, something changed.
Sixteen days after the D-Day landings at Normandy, President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944. Better known as the G.I. Bill, the new legislation paved the way for veterans to attend college or other academic institutions in recognition of their service; the government would pay for tuition and other expenses. That opportunity changed the way many people saw public higher education. With millions of veterans taking full advantage of these new benefits, it was in many ways the beginning of the democratization of education in the United States.
This movement is ongoing. Over the decades, the notion that receiving a college education is both important and attainable expanded beyond veterans to include many who would not otherwise have been expected to attend a university. Expectations changed and horizons broadened. Now, attaining a four-year degree is a way for many to achieve successes that weren’t available to their parents or grandparents—and public institutions like the University of Iowa play an extremely important role in the process. State appropriations, affordable tuition, and $72 million in undergraduate scholarships allow those who might not otherwise have been able to attend college to come to the UI and learn from some of the best faculty in their respective fields.
And education isn’t just about economic outcomes, although a bachelor’s degree certainly increases graduates’ lifetime earnings. Education is just as much about equality and access: It allows people to participate more fully in their society. To be informed is to have agency, which is particularly important for citizens of a representational democracy. With that in mind, making higher education available to as many as possible is a moral and necessary undertaking. A representational democracy is only as successful as its constituents are informed.
That is both the value and responsibility of the University of Iowa—a responsibility that we are determined to uphold. In times of political and social upheaval, it is even more important that we provide young people with the tools necessary to be successful and to keep the nation going strong. The problems we are unable to work out will be left to them, and we owe it to them and to this country to prepare them for the future. Public institutions like the UI are integral to continuing the democratization of education, and we must not—and we do not—take that role lightly.