Federal Funding and Gender Equity

By Anne Sisson Runyan

Citizens by Degree: Higher Education Policy and the Changing Gender Dynamics of American Citizenship by Deondra Rose. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Women currently outnumber men among undergraduates and even in most graduate and professional programs in US higher education. How this happened and the implications of the changing gender balance in higher education for the exercise of democratic participation in the American polity are the subjects of Deondra Rose’s Citizens by Degree. Rose argues that the little-acknowledged National Defense Education Act (NDEA) of 1958 and the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965, in combination with the far better known Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments, are most responsible for changing the gender dynamics in academe. The NDEA and the HEA made federal loans and grants equally available to men and women admitted into higher education institutions, while Title IX struck down admissions policies of most institutions receiving federal funds that either excluded women or greatly reduced their access through restrictive gender quotas. These policies ushered in profound shifts, not only cementing federal support for college and university students following the institution of the 1944 Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (the “GI Bill”), which overwhelmingly privileged male recipients who entered what had long been male bastions of higher learning, but also ultimately positioning women to become better educated and more politically active, particularly as voters, than men.

Through historical and statistical analysis, Rose makes a compelling case that these federal actions—arising from particular political opportunities seized upon by some key lawmakers across the political spectrum and constituting a major, albeit unheralded, dimension of the US welfare state—have greatly, if unintentionally, altered the makeup of US higher education in terms of gender, class, and race. Although conservative southern lawmakers in both parties had long resisted federal assistance for higher education out of fear that such assistance would force an end to racial segregation, the southern economy needed federal dollars to survive. The cost of racial segregation prompted two Democratic congressmen from Alabama to propose the NDEA, using the language of national defense to capitalize on the crisis that ensued from the Soviet launch of the Sputnik. The NDEA not only sidestepped the issue of racially segregated institutions by providing aid (including scholarships, loans, work-study funds, and vocational support) directly to students admitted to any accredited institution; it also ensured that such aid was available to both men and women for study in any field (not just science and technology). Contrary to expectations that women would not take advantage of this aid, or would waste it by marrying rather than completing or using their education, by the early 1960s at least a third of recipients were women, many of whom became teachers who were eligible for loan forgiveness.

The HEA was a central plank of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and was framed as an economic development and competitiveness imperative. Its passage was bolstered by a Democratic administration and Congress and by its expansion of the NDEA, which had already been effective in significantly expanding and redistributing access to higher education and the upward mobility it brought. Gender-neutral Title IV programs within the HEA offered a new guaranteed student loan system and need-based Basic Educational Opportunity Grants, now known as Pell Grants. The 1964 Civil Rights Act had already banned federal funding for racially segregated institutions, and the educational potential of women was increasingly being viewed in the context of poverty abatement.

While the HEA was gender-neutral and even more explicitly antidiscriminatory than the NDEA, the more familiar and more expressly gender-egalitarian Title IX directly targeted the advancement of women in higher education policy. Again, key lawmakers, this time liberal Democratic congresswomen, quietly took advantage of the successes of the civil rights movement and the growth of feminism to end gender discrimination in admissions and other institutional practices so that female students could apply for loans and grants across all institutions. As Rose notes throughout the book, an organized feminist movement, even by 1972, had little to do directly with the momentous changes in federal higher education policy, although female beneficiaries who testified at hearings for these various measures provided compelling reasons for genderneutral, gender-egalitarian, and gender-sensitive policies. Groups like the American Association of University Women and teachers’ unions provided some advocacy for all of these legislative initiatives, but it was lawmakers who drove the process at auspicious times. Feminists outside of government were organizing around the broader goal of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) by 1972, rather than focusing centrally on women’s access to higher education.

While the ERA failed by the early 1980s, Rose points to the deep and lasting impact of these particular federal laws by correlating their timing with the gender, age, race, and socioeconomic backgrounds of their beneficiaries. Through regression analysis of data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study and the Social and Governmental Issues and Participation Study, she locates the turning point in the 1960s and finds that by the 1980s, women had reached parity with men in earned associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees and that they have now surpassed men in the earning of these degrees as well as the PhD. Women, particularly African American women, have in recent decades made greater use than men of federal assistance programs to support their undergraduate and graduate education. And while political participation for both genders dropped in recent times (until the 2018 midterms), the drop for women was much less than for men: women’s voting in presidential elections far surpassed that of men from the 1980s through to at least the mid-2000s, and the level of women’s engagement in such political activities as contacting representatives, signing petitions, and discussing politics with family members is equal to that of men, even though women still evinced less sense of political efficacy at the time of Rose’s study. Rose’s regression analysis also reveals that the increase in student aid resources women received as the barriers to them dropped and as women became more competitive for obtaining them is most responsible for women’s greater educational attainment and political participation. As a result, Rose argues, women are claiming the “full citizenship” that federal higher education policies began to bestow on them in the mid-twentieth century.

There are, however, some disturbing aspects to this success story, as Rose notes in her conclusion. The greater dependence of women, particularly women of color, on loans, which are now far more available than grants, is disproportionately burdening them with student debt. At the same time, both female and male loan recipients tend not to see that the loans and grants that have made higher education accessible to them are guaranteed by the federal government. This can lead them to undervalue the role of government action and the importance of maintaining and expanding (through, for example, greater provision of grants over loans) this key aspect of the welfare and democratic state. And as more men, who in aggregate still have more socioeconomic privilege, opt out of using loans or even of gaining a college education, political commitments to supporting educational opportunities can further erode. Current backlashes against government support come at the expense of an educated and politically thoughtful and engaged electorate. But they also come at the immediate expense of the women who have swelled the student ranks of higher education and thus the pathways to the professoriate.

Rose offers a convincing case for the transformative power of federal higher education policy to massively expand the numbers and demographics of degree-holders and to produce greater gender equity in higher learning and, ultimately, the polity. In so doing, she also provides significant reasons for contemporary feminists and others supportive of an educated, equitable, and democratic society to focus their efforts on electing lawmakers who recognize that government support for students and higher education provides the best return on investment of federal dollars and is a national (and national feminist) imperative.

Anne Sisson Runyan is professor of political science and former head of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at the University of Cincinnati. A recent chair of the AAUP’s Committee on Women in the Academic Profession, she has published widely in the field of feminist international relations, and her most recent book is Global Gender Politics (2018). Her email address is [email protected]

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