Our first five presidents provided important early leadership in education:
George Washington’s belief in the critical role education would play in our national development continued throughout his career of public service. The draft of his first inaugural address in 1789 embraces the foundation of liberal education:
Whenever the opportunity shall be furnished to you as public or as private men, I trust you will not fail to use your best endeavors to improve the education and manners of a people; to accelerate the progress of arts & sciences; to patronize works of genius; to confer rewards for invention of utility; and to cherish institutions favourable to humanity.
John Adams was a co-founder of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.
Of all his accomplishments, Thomas Jefferson took his greatest pride in having established the University of Virginia.
James Madison and James Monroe were charter members of the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia, and Madison succeeded Jefferson as rector of the university. Madison and Patrick Henry helped to establish the charter of Hampden-Sydney College in January 1776, making it the last college founded in the colonies.
These presidents and their contemporary national leaders recognized that the persistence of a democratic republic was dependent upon broadly and deeply educated citizen leaders. Their efforts to foster institutions of liberal learning were convergent with their work to create a successful government and nation.
In addition to Jefferson and Madison, four other U.S. presidents served as university president or chancellor: James Garfield at Hiram College; Millard Fillmore at the University of Buffalo, which he helped to found; Woodrow Wilson at Princeton; and Dwight Eisenhower at Columbia.
To date, 26 U.S. president have served as board members or founding benefactors of American colleges and universities.
In his final annual address to Congress, Washington outlined his dreams for a new nation, calling for the formation of a national university and a national military college.
Our military academies were formed from this effort, but it was four score years later that Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Morrill Act, creating our land grant universities. These state-supported universities assumed the role of the national institution Washington believed was necessary for the United States to become a true leader on the world stage, and they greatly expanded our scope and range of educational offerings.
A century later, Lyndon Johnson signed the Higher Education Act of 1965, and the dream of democratization in higher education finally became a reality to millions for whom a college education had not been possible.
The initial act, which has been reauthorized eight times since its adoption, provides federally supported financial aid in the form of grants and low-interest loans. These have included Pell grants and the Perkins, Stafford and PLUS loan programs, which have made it possible for tens of millions of Americans to attend college.
It also created incentives for newly trained teachers to serve in low-income school districts.
Much of the social and economic progress in the past 50 years can be traced back to that momentous legislation.
A college education continues to be the best investment for a young person to prepare for a prosperous future. And higher education is a critical investment for the future prosperity of our nation.
Each day, I see hundreds of students on my campus building bright futures that are only possible because of these programs. It is an investment in their careers that benefits all of us by strengthening our communities and our citizenry.
On Presidents’ Day, we would do well to honor the historic efforts and commitments of the occupants of the White House by advocating for the reauthorization and expansion of the Higher Education Act — to preserve our democracy, and to invest in what truly makes America great.