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Sputnik Spurs Passage of the National Defense Education Act

October 4, 1957

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union shocked the people of the United States by successfully launching the first earth-orbiting satellite, Sputnik. During the Cold War, Americans until that moment had felt protected by their technological superiority. Suddenly the nation found itself lagging behind the Russians in the Space Race, and Americans worried that their educational system was not producing enough scientists and engineers. Sometimes, however, a shock to the system can open political opportunities.

On the day Sputnik first orbited the earth, the chief clerk of the Senate’s Education and Labor Committee, Stewart McClure, sent a memo to his chairman, Alabama Democrat Lister Hill, reminding him that during the last three Congresses the Senate had passed legislation for federal funding of education, but that all of those bills had died in the House. Perhaps if they called the education bill a defense bill they might get it enacted. Senator Hill—a former Democratic whip and a savvy legislative tactician—seized upon on the idea, which led to the National Defense Education Act.

There had been strong resistance to federal aid to education, but as public opinion demanded government action in the wake of Sputnik, the Senate once again moved ahead with its education bill. Knowing that opponents in the House remained resistant, Senator Hill conferred with another Alabama Democrat, Representative Carl Elliott, who chaired the House subcommittee on education. Meeting in Montgomery, they devised a strategy for getting the NDEA enacted. They framed the debate around the question of whether federal funds should go to students as grants, as the Senate preferred, or as loans. Opponents in the House denounced the notion of grants as “socialist.” When the House prevailed on loans, the rest of the Senate’s version of the bill swooped through to passage. In fact, the grants versus loans debate had been a ploy. Senator Hill and Representative Elliott realized that having voted the same bill down repeatedly in the past, the House had to have something on which it could win.

The National Defense Education Act of 1958 became one of the most successful legislative initiatives in higher education. It established the legitimacy of federal funding of higher education and made substantial funds available for low-cost student loans, boosting public and private colleges and universities. Although aimed primarily at education in science, mathematics, and foreign languages, the act also helped expand college libraries and other services for all students. The funding began in 1958 and was increased over the next several years. The results were conspicuous: in 1960 there were 3.6 million students in college, and by 1970 there were 7.5 million. Many of them got their college education only because of the availability of NDEA loans, thanks to Sputnik and to Senator Hill’s readiness to seize the moment.