In 1990, as the new president of the University of Tennessee, I was trying to understand what had made American colleges and universities the best in the world. I asked David Gardner, then the president of the University of California, why his university has such a tradition of excellence. "First," he said, "autonomy. The California constitution created four branches of government, with the university being the fourth. The legislature basically turns over money to us without many rules about how to spend it.
"The second is excellence. We were fortunate, at our beginning, to have a corps of faculty dedicated to high standards. That tradition has continued. And third, generous amounts of federal--and state--money have followed students to the schools of their choice. That has increased opportunity for those who couldn't afford college, created choices that make good fits between the student and the school, and stimulated competition that encouraged excellent programs."
Autonomy. High standards. Government dollars following students to the schools of their choice. That was the formula for the GI Bill, passed by Congress in 1944. The program gave World War II veterans scholarships redeemable at any accredited institution, public or private. Those veterans who didn't hold a diploma could even use the scholarships at Catholic high schools. With these scholarships came few federal rules, thus preserving the universities' autonomy. And by allowing students to choose their college, the GI Bill encouraged excellence and discouraged weak programs.
Not all university leaders welcomed the program. "It will create a hobo's jungle," warned legendary University of Chicago president Robert Hutchins. Instead, the GI Bill became the most successful piece of social legislation Congress ever enacted. It became the model for the federal grants and loans that today follow 58 percent of America's college students to the schools of their choice. In 1972, when Congress debated whether future federal funding for higher education should go directly to institutions or be channeled through students, the model of the GI Bill helped carry the day for the latter approach, which was surely the right one. Pell Grants (named for Sen. Claiborne Pell, D-R.I.), Stafford Loans, and other forms of financial assistance to students followed. This year the federal government will spend nearly $17 billion on grants and work-study programs and will provide an additional $52 billion in student loans.
Rarely has the federal taxpayer gotten so much bang for the buck. These federal vouchers trained the "greatest generation" and made it possible for a greater percentage of Americans to continue into higher education than in any other country. At the time of the GI Bill's passage in 1944, only about 6 percent of Americans held a four-year college degree. Today that figure stands at 26 percent.
Moreover, these scholarships have strengthened public institutions. At the end of World War II, 50 percent of American college students were attending public institutions. Today 76 percent choose to attend public colleges and universities. So many foreign students want to attend American universities that some institutions impose caps in order to make room for lower-achieving homegrown students. British prime minister Tony Blair is overhauling his nation's system of higher education because he sees a growing gap between the quality of American and British universities. Likewise, former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso recently told a small group of U.S. senators that the most important thing he would remember about his residency at the Library of Congress is "the uniqueness, strength, and autonomy of the American university."
Meanwhile, federal support for elementary and secondary education has taken just the opposite approach--with opposite results. Instead of allowing tax dollars to follow students to the schools of their parents' choice, the federal government gives $35 billion directly to the schools themselves (or to the states, which then give it to schools). …