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Higher education: A Privilege or a Right?

Access to higher education: is it a right, a privilege or a necessity?

Lazar Baćović

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It is an undeniable fact that there are some rights to which all humans are entitled, no matter their race, nationality, gender or faith. Basic political rights, such as the right to vote, express one’s opinion freely, right to participate in the political life are widely accepted today among the vast majority of humans.


Economic rights, on the other hand, are still the subject of bitter disputes among the adherents of various ideologies and political currents. While rights such as equal pay, the right to basic income, unemployment benefits and free health care and education might sound as a reasonable idea to some people, others will totally disagree that they are an essential right of any human being. According to them, they are rather a privilege that ought to be earned, then given without any effort invested in it.

Of all this disputes, the right to a free access to higher education has been probably the most controversial subject of all. Proponents of the right to higher education for all, have claimed that the current educational system is designed only to reinforce social and class divisions and to perpetuate the gaps that exist between different social groups in society. According to them, a college degree is more valuable as a status symbol than as a real indicator of someone’s knowledge and skills. It only serves to keep the privileged members of society, those who could afford the ever-growing college tuition fees, apart from those less fortunate who couldn’t progress beyond high school or had to settle themselves with some local community college.

While not denying some of the arguments of proponents of this theory, adherents of the current commercial version of education claim that the system, unfair as it might look, is actually perfect the way it is.

They emphasize that college education, unlike elementary or high school one, is not a universal right, but a privilege that ought to be earned, either by talent or by hard work. Although they don’t deny that members of the more affluent classes have more opportunities to attend colleges due to their financial resources, which is especially significant for those that want to study at some of the elite colleges, they also point out that higher education is basically built on egalitarian principles and that admission to the colleges is mainly dependent on student’s results during their previous schooling and their extracurricular activities.

Furthermore, there are several more compelling arguments that can be made in favor of more selective higher education. Primarily, the opening of the higher education to everyone, and its further expansion would have disastrous consequences for already high unemployment rates among young college graduates.

According to an analysis done by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployed college graduates had almost the same prospects of finding jobs as high school drop-outs. 37.7% of college graduates with no job had spent more than half a year out of work, which is only marginally lower than 38,3% of high school drop-outs who shared the same fate.

Even those college graduates that are lucky enough to land a job in today’s ever more competitive market are often forced to take under-paid jobs with very few opportunities for advancement. About 44% of young college graduates in their 20‘s are stuck in this situation and the entry of even more fresh graduates would only make this problem more acute.

Finally, on top of all this, there is the question of quality of education being provided. Simply expanding existing capacities and making colleges a place for everyone at no cost, would only lower existing educational standards that are already very questionable on many public colleges. Faculty staff in many of these institutions is highly strained trying to teach ever expanding bodies of students.  With the ever decreasing funds and any higher education reform, that is planned would have to take this factors into serious consideration.

While the idea of higher education availability to everyone is a noble concept and the current education system is certainly in dire need of serious reform, these changes will have to be implemented in a way that will guarantee not only greater numbers, but also greater opportunity for college graduates to find meaningful employment opportunities on today’s highly competitive market.

A higher education system that is meritocratic and that awards excellence instead of mediocrity will certainly be more capable of producing top-notch experts that will build successful careers in their areas of study than a Soviet-like system that forces people to conform to false equality instead of encouraging diversity and competitiveness.

In the long run, such a system will be more beneficial for society as it will allow only the most capable to reach the best colleges in the country. With all its flaws, such system is more likely to produce positive long-term results than a system that is based on the idea that everyone should have access to the college, even if this is to be achieved at the expense of the quality.

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