By Matt Higgins
The Louisiana Legislature is yet again debating whether higher education should be properly funded. Such narrow thinking used to not be part of the American psyche. Seventy years ago, the U.S. government provided direct aid to World War II veterans to attend college, and 70 years later, the program is still going strong because of its record of success.
Louisiana voters should demand the same level of support to properly fund higher education from their legislators; and if legislators fail to do that, even if it means overriding an executive veto, then voters should “cut” them from the state payroll in this fall’s elections.
The 70th anniversary of the end of World War II is upon us — VE Day was May 8 and VJ Day is Aug 15. Despite the jubilee associated with the end of the war (remember the iconic photo of the sailor kissing the woman in Times Square?), our nation had a serious problem on its hands: How would we as a nation transition from a war economy to a peace economy? What to do with the millions of young men leaving the service, returning home and looking for jobs?
The memories of the Great Depression were still etched in Americans’ minds, so this question was not just one for government policy wonks.
On June 22, 1944, Congress passed, and President Roosevelt signed into law, the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the G.I. Bill. The G.I. Bill provided among other things, tuition assistance to World War II veterans returning home. According to a 1998 survey, 54 percent of WWII vets said that the G.I. Bill is what made a college education possible for them. Many scholars argue that the large American middle class of the second half of the 20th century would not have been existed without the G.I. Bill.
No doubt the G.I. Bill was flawed, as it discriminated against African-Americans and did not include women. Nevertheless, this government program did result in large-scale tangible benefits. According to a 1967 U.S. Census report, even after adjusting for price of living increases, the average family had a 61 percent income gain between 1947 and 1965.
The G.I. Bill is not the sole reason for that increase but it’s not hard to see the correlation among higher education, home ownership and a higher standard of living. In addition to providing GI’s with higher education funding, the G.I. Bill also provided them with low-interest home loans.
The Louisiana Legislature has a similar social crisis on its hands – what to do to save public institutions of higher education from devastating cuts, ones that will lead to bankruptcy, reduction in staff and faculty; cuts that will create longer periods students must attend in order to graduate, less grant money. And what of the long-term effects this will have on Louisiana, which could include an erosion of what’s left of the state’s middle class?
Despite passing some revenue-raising measures in the House, the Legislature has not passed a comprehensive bill to fund higher education. Many are frightened of Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has threatened to veto any budget that defies his no-tax-increase promise and harms his brand among Republican presidential primary voters, Louisiana be damned.
Many legislators are beholden to special interests and some, unfortunately, have a hostile attitude towards knowledge – i.e., professors are liberal mind controllers and consensus scientific agreement on matters, like global warming and vaccines, are just “lies from the pit of hell.”
However, the state legislature could fix the budget mess by reducing and removing tax breaks for wealthy individuals and corporations. It could also raise revenue through a higher tax on tobacco. These are just two options; two that have overwhelming support. It should be noted that the federal income tax rate for the highest earners in the 1940s was 90 percent, much more disproportional than the modest solutions offered for this year’s budget.
The effects of the uncertainty are already hindering the missions of higher education. LSU’s bond rating has been jeopardized, highly credential professors and their research have left, and fewer talented, bright citizens see working in higher education as an avenue for the American Dream, leaving fewer to develop the ideas and research needed for a better future.
Legislators must act in unison and soon. Fortunately, as of Wednesday, there is support in the House to fully fund education but it remains to be seen if the Senate provides the same support. Even modest cuts to Louisiana university systems reeling after seven years of cuts will jeopardize the purpose of higher education. These schools will no longer provide the talented work force needed to generate a thriving economy, and the quality of life rankings that put Louisiana near the bottom will worsen.
President Roosevelt said at the signing of the G.I. Bill, “It gives emphatic notice to the men and women in our armed forces that the American people do not intend to let them down.”
If legislators do not adequately address the potential cuts to higher education, they will be sending a message – Louisiana is not a place for the American ideal of moving up the social and economic ladder; Louisiana is not the place to obtain a higher education degree; Louisiana is not a place for young adults to settle, Louisiana is not a place for talented entrepreneurs, but Louisiana is a place that lets its people down.
Matt Higgins is an assistant professor of History at SUNO and a freelance journalist. He taught in the Jefferson Parish Public School System for four years.