It’s back-to-school season: time to sharpen your pencils, crack the spine on your shiny new notebook, and most likely, look earnestly for that sweet, sweet government money coming in the form of student loans.
About 70% of students — over 40 million Americans — graduate with loan debt, and many of them take advantage of the low interest rates and guaranteed lending that the U.S. government provides. But how did this system start? (Things I cannot begin to address: how to fix it).
Student loans began, like so many things in America, for the purpose of national security. The Cold War left 1950s America with several enemies, quite a few nasty competitors, and a constant sense of paranoia. Like a fur-hatted version of Draco Malfoy, mother Russia was seemingly always waiting in the wings with a better invention, an undercover agent, or, you know, a missile pointed at the good ol’ USA.
This tension was amplified in the race to get to outer space, and in 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik — the first unmanned satellite to orbit the Earth — the U.S. was displeased, to say the least. The American ego was bruised, and on top of that, the Soviet Union now appeared to have superior education and technological capabilities that threatened national security.
The following year, the U.S. saw a lot of failed rocket launches and some worrisome errors with testing atomic bombs (oopsies), so politicians launched into action. 1958 saw the start of NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration, and Elvis Presley as an Army private. And in a huge push to beat Russia in the space race, President Eisenhower signed into law the National Defense Education Act, which funded the study of STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — at U.S. institutions of higher education. During the first four years of the NDEA, over a billion dollars was allotted to improving science courses.
More and more Americans had begun attending college — college enrollment doubled between the year 1940 and 1960 — and part of the NDEA was providing loans to students. The act covered a variety of pursuits, including vocational training, guidance counselors; modern foreign language studies, and most of all, the holy grail of math, science and technology.
So, more money for higher education, especially that good good science stuff, in the form of loans. All kosher, right?
Wrong. To receive federal funds, students had to sign off on a number of official forms, including a disclaimer affidavit that stated they a) did not belong to any subversive organizations and b) pledged allegiance to the United States and would not overthrow the government.
Obviously, this became a point of contention, especially as most people required to sign it were academics and tended to oppose restrictions on thinking and writing. Opponents claimed it violated academic freedom, and Barnard, Yale and Princeton led the fight in refusing to accept federal funds that came with such a blanket affidavit statement. Harvard joined the ranks soon after, and a battle in Congress followed.
The biggest opponent in the Senate was a young upstart from Massachusetts named John F. Kennedy, who delivered a powerful speech to Congress in which he called the affidavit “superfluous at best and discriminatory and subversive of the purposes of the Act at worst.” Along with Sen. Joseph Clark of Pennsylvania, Kennedy pushed for a bill to repeal the disclaimer, declaring:
“Card-carrying members of the Communist party will have no hesitancy about perjuring themselves in the affidavit. It will not keep them out of the program. But it does keep out those who resent such a requirement…surely, in our efforts to attract into scientific pursuits the best talents, the most inquiring minds of our nation, we do not wish to exclude the non-conformists and dissenters.”
By 1960, over 153 colleges had joined in protest, and wrote-in petitions for the removal of the disclaimer. But the bill failed to pass in Congress, and it was not until after Kennedy himself became president that he was able to use a related incident to push forward the repeal of the disclaimer affidavit in 1962.
So as you head back to school, nearly 60 years after this first form of aid was introduced, you can thank your lucky stars that today, we have student loans that — what a relief! — don’t require you to sign away your life to access federal funds for higher education.