IN LATE 1965, President Lyndon Johnson stood in the modest gymnasium of what had once been the tiny teaching college he attended in Texas and announced a programme to promote education. It was an initiative that exemplified the “Great Society” agenda of his administration: social advancement financed by a little hard cash, lots of leverage and potentially vast implicit government commitments. Those commitments are now coming due.
“Economists tell us that improvement of education has been responsible for one-fourth to one-half of the growth in our nation’s economy over the past half-century,” Johnson said. “We must be sure that there will be no gap between the number of jobs available and the ability of our people to perform those jobs.”
To fill this gap Johnson pledged an amount that now seems trivial, $1.9m, sent from the federal government to states which could then leverage it ten-to-one to back student loans of up to $1,000 for 25,000 people. “This act”, he promised, “will help young people enter business, trade, and technical schools–institutions which play a vital role in providing the skills our citizens must have to compete and contribute in our society.”