In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Christopher Loss talks about his new book, Between Citizens and the State. In the 20th century, the book argues the federal government used higher education as an "intermediary institution" where citizens could learn about their government and the government could learned about its citizens.
Policymakers turned college-going into a national priority because they thought educated citizens were better citizens — more civically engaged, politically aware, and democratic. While it’s true that college had always been a key training ground for democratic citizenship, it wasn’t until the 20th century that the federal government started to pump millions, then billions, of dollars into research and student aid. This was a remarkable transformation considering that for most of American history the federal government went out of its way to avoid getting involved in higher education, except at the nation’s land-grant colleges, which collected modest annual appropriations for agricultural research and operating expenses. This all changed during the middle third of the 20th century, when higher education and the federal government forged a durable partnership buffeted by cataclysmic wars, economic depressions, and mass social movements. It was at this time that the federal government extended educational opportunities to individuals in exchange for their service to the state. The best example of this was the GI Bill of 1944, which offered veterans portable financial aid to go to college in return for their wartime sacrifices, and the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which provided fellowships and loans to students who promised to earn degrees in defense-related fields of study, like math, science, and the foreign languages. Starting with the Higher Education Act of 1965 policymakers veered away from the reciprocal design that lay at the heart of these earlier programs, looking instead to grants, and especially to loans, to help students and their families pay for college.