The time has come for education to be treated as a right. Period. The idea that higher education is simply for those who can afford it is decidedly not just, fair, or good for our democracy. You see, friends and fellow citizens, we all agree that K-12 education is good. We all agree that preschool is good. Many, many of us agree that trade schools, community colleges, and universities are good.
The question becomes, then, why is it that those who choose to go onto trade schools, community colleges, and universities must place themselves in debt in excess of a year’s salary at a minimum? It’s illogical.
Minnesota and my home state of Wisconsin aren’t that different. We value hard work, personal responsibility, neighborliness, self-reliance and education, among other things. Lately, however, both of our great states have dropped the ball. According to the Institute of College Access, in 2014, 70% of Minnesota students had debt, an average amount of $31,579, which is “good” for third and fifth, respectively. For Wisconsin, it is also third at 70%, but seventeenth at $28,810 average debt.
What constitutes a right? What puts education in the same category as free speech, privacy, the right to own a gun, worship, or self-incrimination? A right, quite simply, is something that we, as humans, deserve simply based on our own moral worth. The least among us deserves not just privacy, free speech, freedom to worship, privacy, but also education, just because they exist and have human dignity. If something is not a right, it is a privilege, and based on one’s economic standing. Education is beyond a privilege, and must be considered a right.
What most people don’t take into account, however, is anything outside of their typical experience. I have a friend who has more than $80,000 of debt. She works 40+ hours per week, including during the school year and gets fantastic grades. Yet, all her money goes to her family so that they don’t lose their house. That impossible choice between education and duty to family ought to never deter one from going on to education. Sadly, there are far too many stories like that and my friend is not unique.
The question that next comes up is “How did things get to be so bad?”. While the problem is multifaceted, a recent article by CNBC identifies the single greatest problem regarding the cost of education is the massive cut in State funding. The only ways to fund public education today are from the state or families. With such a concentrated divestment from the State funding education since the 1960s, it has fallen drastically onto families. In addition, the purchasing power of the dollar has plummeted, so even though we make more money per hour at minimum wage than the minimum wage in the 1960s, we can’t buy as much with our dollar as we used to be able to.
Because the funding of education is a political question, we must take a look at who benefits from keeping many people out of college (not including those who decided that higher education wasn’t for them). We must take a look at those who have done better than the rest of Americans since the 1960s. One group sticks out more than any others: the uber-wealthy. The uber-wealthy, the top 1% of the top 1%, have, at best, by negligence influenced neoliberal Democrats and their Republican allies decreased the funding for education, and at worst, systemically worked to ensure that many of our fellow citizens in our Republic lacked the intellectual abilities to resist a reactionary agenda.
In order to ensure that We the People have the ability to not just earn more, learn more, and potentially jump social classes, education must be the recognized for the silver bullet that it is. Education touches every part of our society, from the humanities and national defense to the sciences and agriculture. It is the most effective way for society to hold those in power accountable and further our own interests. Education is a right, from kindergarten to doctoral level. It is high time we began to treat it that way and have the American Dream become the American Reality for all citizens.