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  • Morgan O’Connell

The Price We Pay: How College Tuition Funded Unwanted War

BETTMANN, CORBIS, AP IMAGES


Economists and political pundits have consistently cited high inflation rates, a pressing oil embargo, and economic recession as the underlying causes of college tuition. Ronald Reagan’s governorship tells another story. 


The mid-1900s saw the transformation of higher education from a privatized industry limited to wealthy elites to a standardized, public industry. World War II catalyzed this transition and revealed the constraints of the American education system. During the war, the military was stretched thin by a shortage of skilled workers needed to communicate with allied forces and develop new weaponry; U.S. forces were depleted, and large swaths of recruits were rejected from service for their inability to read and write. The deployment of 16.5 million working men severely reduced the workforce, leading to increased demand for specialized training catalyzing trade school growth. To fuel the war, the federal government funded public universities for  “war-related research.” By 1944, Congress passed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (GI Bill), effectively subsidizing the education of nearly 9 million veterans and paving the way toward inclusive higher education. 


By 1965, Congress took a significant step in expanding public access to universities by providing financial assistance and low-interest loans to lower and middle-income students. This change marked a transition towards subsidized public universities, with most states minimizing student costs to administrative and recreational fees. At the University of California, in-state tuition was cost-free except for minor educational fees, amounting to a maximum cost of $150 per semester. Unfortunately, this era of affordable education was short-lived. 


While WWII catalyzed federal and state investments in public education, the Vietnam War saw a reduction in government assistance. The sixties were marred by Cold War politics and an overextension of American involvement abroad. The Vietnam War was no different. With Vietnam divided between a communist North and an anti-communist South, the United States, capitalizing on the conflict, provided training and military equipment to anti-communist leader Ngô Đình Diệm. By 1962, U.S. military presence in South Vietnam increased tenfold, reaching an estimated 9,000 troops. Within two years, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson authorized the mass bombing of North Vietnam and later launched a “CIA-led secret war in [neutral] Laos” to disrupt Northern supply chains.  

Despite initial support, the Vietnam War was wildly unpopular in the United States. Most Americans opposed the war for its duration and heavy casualties. By 1967, 15,058 American soldiers were killed and 109,527 wounded. Conscription was involuntary, and soldiers returning from war often reported “physical and psychological deterioration,” including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), physical deformities, and substance abuse disorders. Intense media coverage exposed viewers to the brutality of war, sparking outrage over unethical war tactics, including chemical warfare and the killing of unarmed civilians. 


University students were at the forefront of the anti-war protests. As early as 1960, University of Michigan students formed the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), opposing American involvement in the Vietnam War and calling for a“true American democracy. The masses, they argued, “were distanced from the actual decision-making of the state” and were virtually powerless in U.S. foreign affairs. By the 1970s, SDS had gained national recognition, with thousands of students participating in major demonstrations and teach-ins


Amidst civil unrest, Ronald Reagan, the mayor of California, shut down all 28 University of California and California State campuses. Following public backlash, Reagan’s education adviser, Roger Freeman, publicly claimed that the United States was “in danger of producing an educated proletariat,” advising governments to be more “selective” on who is allowed in higher education. Unsurprisingly, Reagan declared that we “should not subsidize intellectual curiosity,” demanding a 20% reduction in public university funding and effectively imposing college tuition in the State of California.   


Reagan’s governorship reflected a new interpretation of education, one that emphasized job preparation and economic productivity over research and innovation. The American education system came to adapt to these standards, rejecting the “ideals of liberal education, in which college is a vehicle for intellectual development, for cultivating a flexible mind and, no matter the focus of study, for fostering a broad set of knowledge and skills whose value is not always immediately apparent.” This new interpretation of education hampers individual thought and creativity, stripping any passion for learning; it teaches students to prioritize grades and financial success over comprehension. Modern education produces factory plants and unmotivated workers incapable of problem-solving. Crushing intellectual curiosity has consequences.


A University of California survey gauging freshman opinion found that younger generations increasingly prioritize financial success over developing a meaningful philosophy of life. In 1971, 37.1% of first-year students considered financial success an “essential” or “very important” objective. By 2013, these figures had skyrocketed to 82%. The same survey found that boomers were 27.9% more likely than millennials to cite the development of a meaningful philosophy of life as an essential objective. Unsurprisingly, younger generations are grappling with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and job dissatisfaction


In the words of W.E.B. Du Bois, “the final product of our training must be neither a psychologist nor a brick mason, but a man.”

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