Rethinking Education: Should It Be a Civil Right?

Education has long been regarded as an avenue for upward mobility, touted as a surefire way of breaking cycles of poverty. But as access to education, particularly higher education, becomes out of the reach of many, the question inevitably arises, "Should education be a civil right?"

Several months ago, the Pew Research Center released a report titled, Is College Worth It? College Presidents, Public Assess, Value, Quality and Mission of Higher Education. According to the report:

A record share of students are leaving college with a substantial debt burden, and among those who do, about half 48%) say that paying off debt made it harder to pay other bills; a quarter say it has made it harder to buy a home (25%); and about a quarter say it has had an impact on their career choices (24%).

A majority of American (57%) say the higher education system in the United States fails to provide students with good value for the money they and their families spend. An even larger majority — 75% — says college is too expensive for most Americans to afford.

Nearly two-thirds of college presidents (63%) say students and their families should pay the largest share of the cost of a college education. Just 48% of the public agrees. An equal share of the public would prefer that the bulk of the cost of a college education be borne by the federal government, state governments, private endowments or some combination.

Moreover the patterns in student borrowing, which have spiked in recent years, will most likely continue. Another Pew Research Center publication notes that, in 2008, "60% of all graduates had borrowed compared with about half (52%) in 1996." Second, among 2008 graduates who borrowed, the average loan for bachelor degree holders was more than $23,000; in 1996 the amount was slightly more than $17,000. Third, more students are enrolling in private for-profit schools, where both the levels and rates of borrowing are highest.

Yesterday WNYC hosted a panel at the Brooklyn Museum. When moderator Brian Lehrer posed the question of whether education should be a civil right, the panelists responded overwhelmingly in the affirmative. Professor Frederick Harris of Columbia University pointed out that City University of New York (CUNY) was virtually free for most of its history, until recently.

Professor Harris also compared tuition at University of California, Berkeley in the 1960s with prevailing fees. Both public institutions have historically served communities of color.

Rachel Moran, Dean at UCLA School of Law weighed in saying, "Trends in privatization treat education the same as buying a toothbrush." Dean Moran ended on a cautionary, warning that if these trends are not rolled back, we'll see a significant drop off in intergenerational mobility.


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