Opinion: Higher Education is a Human Right
On Jan. 3, 2017, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced his plan for the Tuition-Free Degree Program at Queen’s LaGuardia Community College. Standing confidently at the podium, he shouted to a roaring crowd, “This society should pay for college because you need college to be successful.”
The Excelsior Scholarship, as this plan is commonly known, is the first statewide effort to provide free college for lower and middle income Americans. Despite its popularity among Cuomo’s young, liberal audience, the idea of free higher education has only recently been seriously discussed in politics, and many are still unsure about it.
This sentiment is understandable for older Americans, as higher education was once only one of many options for a young person, and considered lofty and impractical for the majority of Americans who did not work in a highly specialized field. For most of American history, the only way to climb the economic ladder was to start with a low paying, entry level job and work one’s way up. Recent-day politicians often appeal to this image of the American dream, the ideal of a young individual going out west to make their fortune with just old-fashioned grit and determination, and without help from anyone. However, this view of labor has not been accurate since the Industrial Revolution. When agricultural jobs gave way to manufacturing and management jobs that required much more education and job training, opportunities shrank for undereducated workers.
What happened then sheds light on our current situation today, as the economy’s needs for labor are in the process of another major shift, from manufacturing jobs to jobs in technology, engineering, and healthcare that require an even better educated work force. Georgetown’s Public Policy Institute projects that in 2020, sixty-five percent of all jobs in the economy will require some postsecondary education or training beyond the high school level, though only a third of the US labor force currently have any. Combined with the stagnating real income levels of middle class workers since the 1970s, these forces will make it harder and harder for anyone without a degree to compete for a job, according to a 2015 article from the Economic Policy Institute. While higher education used to be a privilege, it will soon become a necessity for anyone hoping to make a living wage.
If the skills and education of the new labor force does not adapt to match the new jobs available, the notion of American social mobility is also in jeopardy. Although higher education is viewed as a baseline requirement for a decent income, the average cost of a four year college is just under $40,000, according to 2016 data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Only wealthy students whose families can pay the tuition will be able to escape the significant amounts of debt from student loans, and it can be almost impossible for a student from a regular family to graduate without significant amounts of debt. This is an extra burden inflicted on already disadvantaged students, and becomes a large hurdle for people trying to enter the middle class. For a truly equal society, every person with the ability should have the right to self-betterment regardless of wealth and privilege.
In a country as wealthy as the United States, it is not foolishly idealistic, as it is often framed, to ask the government to make provisions for educating the next generation, and allow them to enter the workforce free of hefty loans. If more people are able to attend college, American society will eventually reap all the benefits of a better educated populace, such as lower crime and more innovation and entrepreneurship. The increasingly outdated and out of touch concept that anyone can pull themselves up by the bootstraps is not an excuse to avoid dealing with the real economic hardships that young persons face. If the US is to remain a land of opportunity, higher education must be made more accessible.