What Gives You the Right to Be Educated?

What Gives You the Right to Be Educated?


“Higher education is a privilege, not a right…”

…is what Watson Scott Scail, President and CEO of Educational Policy Institute, argued in 2011 in defense of higher institutions privatizing their degree programs. His statement was in reaction to the Canadian Federation of Students asserting that, indeed, “Education is a right” and decrying the privatization of McGill University’s MBA program and subsequent tuition hike by 900 percent.

…is what Washington Post’s Michelle Singletary claims is a dictum that could alienate the lower classes of society from achieving degrees and therefore inhibit their social mobility. Singletary argues in her personal finance column: “If going to college is a right and vital to our nation’s economic standing, then government will have to do more to make it affordable for all. If it’s a privilege, only the nation’s wealthiest families will one day be able to send their children to college.”

…is a belief nevertheless defended by Scail when he asserts that the matter rests in a middle ground between the public and private sphere, rather than a strict social divide between classes: “Government should remain solid in its support of expanding higher education opportunities for all by reducing the barriers of cost and geography, and ensuring that the education provided at that level is both appropriate and of a high quality. But higher education is a privilege that Canada and the US provide to its people; a privilege that all citizens have an opportunity to take advantage of. It should not be confused with a right.”

…is possibly evidenced by May 2011 survey results from the Pew Research Center. Pew surveyed 2,142 adults aged 18 and older about their opinions on the cost and value of a college education, as well as 1,055 presidents of two-year and four-year colleges and universities. On the matter of cost, 63 percent of college presidents said that students and their families should pay the largest share of the cost of a college education. Only 48 percent of the public agreed, with the majority of respondents preferring that the cost be a mix of aid from the federal government, state governments, private endowments or a combination.

…is what my own father would state, in more colorful terms, over dining room table arguments about “these damn college grads” getting promoted over him again at the factory. He “slaved there for over twenty years and didn’t get shit” because of these elitist kids who thought they knew what they were doing. He’d ask, red in the face with blue collar indignation, “What could they know from a library that I haven’t learned in all my years of clocking in at the crack of dawn?”

(And at first my father didn’t understand why he kept receiving correspondence from a woman named Sallie Mae. Then he learned enough about my older brother’s college loan status to lament these “damn interest rates inching higher and higher like they’re never satisfied, the vultures!” And he’d turn to me to say, “You know college isn’t for everyone, right? Why not work for a while, and then maybe a two-year community college? Go for business while you’re there. You’ll only get a job if you get a degree in business.”

(“And what’s all that you’re always reading? Know what? People who read all the time are people who can’t think for themselves – that’s what. Stay here and think about that. I’m going back to the factory.”)

…is ultimately a statement that’s going to cause people to continuously volley their opinions back and forth over lines dividing class, race, and educational backgrounds. In an ideal, egalitarian society – why, yes, every person born in today’s world is entitled to an education. But what we mean by the term in common usage is a formal, standardized education, and the institutions set in charge of those degrees are just as much businesses as they are schools. The question of privilege vs. right is a question of prioritizing education, and not all people, not all families, feel financially capable of prioritizing higher education as a necessity – which is unfortunate, because problems with the business of higher education should not be internalized as problems with higher education as a value in and of itself. First generation college students are confronting this issue every Fall semester, with at least a couple of fathers like my own standing in front of every dormitory saying goodbye to their kids, shrugging and reluctant, wondering: Alright, fine. Let ‘em go. But does this mean I’m going to get more mail from that Sallie Mae woman?

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