Is There A Right To Education?

Why do American citizens have a right to some education, but not all of it?

I think a lot about higher education in America and what it means and why we have it. It might be due to my job, but news articles about the broken American education system and the student loan crisis fill up my news feed. Then there’s this article from the Brookings Institution which tells me that the problem isn’t that bad and that it’s been exaggerated by the media. As is usually the case, the comments were more interesting than the article itself.

There was more than one reader who decried the data the Brookings Institution collected. However, what caught my attention were the commenters who said, “Well, someone has to pay for the education.” This group urged students to take responsibility for their debt, to be held accountable for their decision to attend a university, prestigious or otherwise. These comments, in turn, reminded me of another article that said higher education isn’t a right, that people do not have a right to higher education.

Why not?

The United States mandates schooling for children up to a certain age. American citizens fund public schools for children up to the 12th grade. This, the United States says, is all the schooling you’ll need. And, yet, we all know that while a high school diploma marks an important milestone, a high school education is not enough.

Education, like death, is an equalizer, but only one is inevitable.

The United States mandates schooling for children (American citizens or otherwise). Why?  Because at some time, at some point, the people decided that children needed an education. We decided that young American citizens had a right to be educated so we demanded that they be so.

If Americans have a right to an education at some levels, why not a right to it at all levels?  It’s a question that’s been buzzing around my head. Some might point to our capitalist society, some might point to a broken economy, and some might point to ethics. We decided we could mandate education for children, but not for adults. I suppose it’s unethical to force adults to continue their education. But wouldn’t that also make it unethical to force children to have one in the first place?

I found myself swimming in contradictions.

More high school graduates are pursuing higher education than ever before. Why? For the very wealthy, I’m sure it’s no problem, but the vast majority of these new students are going to need financial assistance in some way, shape, or form. They might qualify for Pell grants or institutional scholarships, but the majority of this financial assistance will probably be in loans. The United States is producing more college graduates now than ever before, and we’re quickly becoming one of the most educated countries in the world.

But why are people pursuing higher education in the first place? To land a good job? The people who think American citizens don’t have a right to a higher education are usually the same people who think a higher education shouldn’t guarantee you a job. Or that someone is acting “entitled” when they wonder why they’re still working as a waiter when they earned their bachelor’s degree six months ago. Is it unreasonable to think you deserve a well-paying job after spending four years working to get a degree?

Are you entitled if you think your hard work should pay off?

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Not if you grew up in the same generation I did. I was told a narrative of success that centered around education. For my family, high school graduation was the smallest of blips, the lowest expectation. College would be the only way to achieve success or, at least, to get started on that road. And, at the end of the road, there would well-paying jobs waiting for me, my reward for years of writing, editing, and revising papers, for the 40 hours a week I spent studying when I could’ve been in the workforce, and, most of all, for not having a private bathroom.

Do I regret going to college? No. My experiences as an undergraduate and, later, a graduate student allowed me to expand my way of thinking, to see the world in different ways, and to engage with complex ideas. Do I regret going to my particular school? $40,000 later… sometimes (although, this number isn’t really that bad compared to other people).

I was embarrassed to discover that, while I had worked hard in college, a job that I liked (not loved, just liked) was not waiting for me at the end. Well, mostly I was embarrassed that I had actually thought this the whole time. I imagine there were many 2014 graduates who discovered this as well and may have also been embarrassed.

Most high-paying and/or enjoyable jobs require some kind of formal education. So people go to college so they can get those jobs. At some point, we’re all going to have to sit around the table and talk about how this was not the original purpose of the university. Higher education was meant to make you a better thinker, a better citizen, a better human being. We’re going to have to talk about how no one really cares about those things when they can’t pay rent, when they can’t afford car repairs, when they have to eat dinner at a gas station. I imagine if most people could get a job that paid $15 an hour and work 40 hours a week, if they could start a job after high school that allowed them to be financially independent or to take care of their families, there would be a lot fewer people pursuing higher education.

People are taught that school is important, but they don’t go to college because they care about school. They go to college because it’s the only way to survive now.

And everyone has a right to that.

View Comment (1)
  • I find your education system in the USA reflects a lot on the country… it’s unfair. How many middle Americans can afford to send their kids to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Duke ? Even community College is more expensive then McGill University or U of T which are both ranked in the first top 20 in the world.

    Right now in Canada people are pushed a lot towards trades. Welders are making about 100K a year as well as electricians. My husband is a carpenter and does very well.

    With the manual workforce getting older I think trades are not something that should be looked over. I mean there can only be so many doctors, lawyers, engineers… there will always be toilets and you’ll always need someone to fix them!

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