President Lyndon Baines Johnson returned to his alma mater Nov. 8, 1965 for one very important job— to sign the Higher Education Act.
Now, 50 years later, the Higher Education Act continues to give Americans the chance to receive federal financial aid in order to go to college which is something Texas State officials are celebrating this upcoming week. Margarita Arellano, chair of the planning committee and dean of students at Texas State, said the 50-year anniversary celebration will be Nov. 3-4.
Before the signing, Johnson spoke about how the legislation would open the door to education.
He said the Higher Education Act would allow high school seniors anywhere in the country to apply to any college or university, regardless of financial status.
“The answer for all of our national problems, the answer for all the problems of the world, comes down, when you really analyze it, to one single word—education,” Johnson said.
Kelly Frels, student body president from 1965 to 1966, said he had the honor of sitting on the platform with Johnson as the act was signed.
The act was signed in Strahan Gymnasium, then housed in what is now the Music Building on campus.
“He came back to his university where he graduated from to do it out of respect for what he received from the university and because of his rapport and relationship with the institution,” Frels said.
Frels said during the signing process, he was able to get one of the pens Johnson used to sign the bill with. For Frels, the experience was a surreal moment.
“It was absolutely amazing how he filled the room,” Frels said. “He commanded absolute attention and it was another one of those unique moments.”
According to the university archives, Johnson began school at Southwest Texas State Teachers College in 1927 and gained a bachelor’s degree and teaching certificate in August 1930. During his college career, Johnson taught children at the Welhausen School in Cotulla, Texas.
Jaime Chahin, member of the planning committee and dean of applied arts at Texas State, said while Johnson was teaching in Cotulla, the school consisted primarily of Mexican-American students.
“That’s where he began to understand poverty and discrimination and the implications poverty and discrimination had on the opportunities and choices that you had to better prepare yourself,” Chahin said.
According to the archives, the former president said he would never forget the faces of the children at Welhausen School.
“I remember even yet the pain of realizing and knowing then that college was closed to practically every one of those children because they were too poor,” Johnson said. “And I think it was then that I made up my mind that this nation could never rest while the door to knowledge remained closed to any American.”
Chahin said the act provided financial resources for students to gain higher education, such as access to the Pell Grant
“That is a very significant transformation because before that, the only way you could go to college is if you had money or if you would borrow,” Chahin said.
As a result of the act, Title IX, financial aid and work studies became available to students across the nation, Chahin said.
Mary Brennan, member of the planning committee and chair of the history department, said the act helped institutions of higher education build infrastructures.
However, Brennan said the most important part of the act enabled students who would have not been able to afford college tuition make higher education a reality by providing them with the Pell Grant.
Brennan said the Higher Education Act didn’t make education possible for only poor kids, but also for middle and working class students by providing student loans.
Johnson’s impact will be celebrated when more than 280 students from different junior high schools in central Texas, including Cotulla, will visit Texas State to commemorate the act on Nov. 3, Arellano said.
Brennan said there will be a campus scavenger hunt and cardboard cutouts of the president and Lady Bird Johnson, his wife, to take photos with.
“The whole idea is to tie them and make them think about higher education in a different way,” Brennan said.
When choosing schools to attend the event, the committee intended to invite schools that Johnson would have wanted or schools that normally can’t afford to send students on a tour, Brennan said.
Arellano said on Nov. 4 an academic panel of experts will come to campus focus on the history, implications and impact of the Higher Education Act.
Arellano said following the academic panel, a remembrance ceremony will be held that will include the guest speakers who were present for the signing of the act, as well as individuals who benefited from its implementation.
Arellano said there would have been hundreds and thousands, if not millions, of people who would not have been able to attend college if not for the Higher Education Act.
“It has been significant for all people in the U.S. that come from low socio-economic backgrounds,” Arellano said. “Students who in the past had never even dreamed about coming to college can apply for financial aid and a good number of them will receive financial aid.”