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Is college education a social right?

February 13, 2012

Johns Hopkins professor Lester Spence thoughtfully argues on CNN.com that college education should be an individual’s right rather than a privilege for those who can afford to pay for it. I agree. As Spence admits, he got the idea from Adolph Reed, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania who has been advocating for this since at least 2004, when it became much more acknowledged that college expenses were spiraling out of control. Spence’s piece has received over 900 responses, most of them highly critical and dismissive. You can read his responses to what he has identified as the leading critiques of his argument, here.

Let’s be clear: I agree with Spence’s argument. But I’m not so sure I agree with his framing of it–again, this framing originates from Reed–not because the “policy is politically impossible in the current climate,” but because the argument isn’t framed in such a way to capitalize upon our current political climate. Call it cynical and pragmatic, but I suspect that much of the criticism to such a policy boils down to it being an “individual right.” As Reed wrote in 2004,

Higher education is a basic social good. As such, it should be available to all, without cost, who meet admission standards. The federal government, as the guarantor of social rights, should bear primary responsibility for providing free college for all.

That sort of language isn’t going to get much traction outside of the progressive set. But free college for all qualified individuals plays right into the rhetoric of “national security” and “global competitiveness.” There’s a way of framing a highly educated citizenry as the underpinning of national security and global competitiveness. In the immediate short run, this framing might be just as unlikely to gain support as the individual’s right argument, but long-term it might be more politically expedient.

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From → National, Policy, Politics

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