College Access: How the Space Race Opened Doors for Women


We all know the space race gave America access to the moon, but did you know it also helped pave the way for more women to go to college?

Women now make up more than 56 percent of students on campuses nationwide, according to the US Department of Education. But back in the 1960s, colleges often used “gender quotas” or simply excluded women entirely.

2018 marks 60 years since the passage of the National Defense Education Act (NDEA). In a recent episode of the Ways & Means podcast, host Emily Hanford explored how the National Defense Education Act inadvertently gave millions of American women access to college.

Hanford interviewed Duke professor Deondra Rose on the topic. Rose credits the state of panic after the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik with creating the environment necessary to pass the NDEA.

“People were really like freaking out. And so, they were asking, ‘What on earth do we do? Is it possible that the Soviet Union is launching satellites and they can see us — they’re spying on us and they can see our military capabilities — you know, from on high?’” Rose said. “…this event really dashed Americans’ perceptions of our relative strength when it came to academics.”

Before Sputnik, Carl Elliott, an Alabama lawmaker, had been trying to get legislation passed that would provide federal support and scholarships for college students. After Sputnik, he repackaged it for the “politics of crisis,” Rose said, framing it “as a temporary measure that would address the US’s poor showing in science and technology.”

The NDEA called for $1.6 billion in merit-based scholarships and student loans. But most importantly, it said that anyone could apply for these scholarships and loans.

“In the 1940s and ‘50s, congressional liberals from the north would often include specific language in legislation that prohibited discrimination…Southern Democrats would object to the anti-discrimination language, and the bill would die,” Hanford explained. “In order to pass the National Defense Education Act, the bill’s sponsors, Southerners Carl Elliot and Lister Hill, knew to leave that language out. The bill just said in vague language that anyone could apply — no specifics about race, no anti-discrimination clause to fire up the opposition. And it worked. The bill passed. And that vague language that said anyone could apply — that’s how women got their foot in the door.”

As a result, tens of thousands of women received financial aid under the NDEA and attended college. Millions more have benefitted from later federal aid programs that followed its model, such as Perkins Loans, Stafford Loans, and Pell Grants.

Listen to the full podcast here.

Ashley Dobson is NACAC’s communications manager for content and social media. You can reach her at

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