Johns Hopkins Magazine -- September 1998
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T U I T I O N    S P E C I A L    R E P O R T

The Ebb and Flow of Opportunity

Didn't it used to be much easier for middle class families to afford a Hopkins or Harvard?

That depends on how you define "used to." From the founding of our country until nearly the middle of this century, an elite university education was most often a perk of monied classes. Colleges like Harvard were out of reach for the less advantaged, unless high achievers could find philanthropic patrons. State schools created in the 1860s did offer some education options for the working class. Often, though, families worked to save enough money for one child to go to college, while other children had to get jobs.

The landmark in student aid came in the mid-1940s with the G.I. Bill, which enabled thousands of World War II veterans to attend college on the federal government's dime. What was seen as a reward for those who served their country in war transformed national policy regarding access to education.

In the late 1950s, after Sputnik was launched, the United States became worried about the Soviet Union pulling ahead in science and technology. In an era of Great Society politics, the 1965 Higher Education Act was passed, creating the current system of federally subsidized loans. What was to become known as the Pell Grant Program for lower income students was approved by Congress seven years later.

"In the 1960s, there was a push for access to college so increased state and federal dollars were made available," says Student Financial Services director Ellen Frishberg. "It's a whole different population; it's not just 'rich white boys' anymore." Today at Hopkins, in the entire undergraduate student body, there are nearly as many women as men; African Americans comprise about 7 percent of all undergraduate students, while Asian Americans comprise some 17 percent.

Throughout the United States, student aid was most abundant during the 1970s, when Pell Grants and other federal programs were loosening to permit more low- and middle-income students to become eligible. And college tuition costs were rising more slowly than inflation during much of the 1970s. In that decade especially, it was not unrealistic for the talented child of two schoolteachers to set her sights on a Yale or a Hopkins.