Earlier this semester, I was walking to class when I noticed something a little out of the ordinary. Usually, one can walk past the University Memorial Center fountain at midday and find at least one person holding a sign with a message in the style of the Westboro Baptist Church; something like “God Hates Fags” or “You Are All Doomed to Hell.” Knowing this, and being a bit desensitized to such aggressive expressions of free speech, I almost walked past a lone man with a sign in his hand. This message in particular, though, was not something I was used to seeing. It read, “Your Degree Ain’t Shit But A Product of Wealth.”
I continued on my way intrigued (which is basically the least amount of reaction one can have when being directly addressed by an activist, aside from complete disregard). Later, though, it got me thinking — is higher education simply a yardstick of privilege? If so, what are the implications?
First, how do the values surrounding education in the United States and around the globe stack up to one another? Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, states that “everyone has the right to education,” which would imply that, as a right, the globe’s respective sovereign governments are charged with providing and protecting the people’s right to education. Additionally, that right would signify that there is no cost attached to enrollment in educational institutions, just as there would be no cost attached to exercising freedom of speech, as the man at the fountain did.
What follows, though, is crucial. “Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages,” and “…higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.” The declaration is saying that higher education is available to all citizens, but that enrollment in higher education is contingent on one’s skills or intellect. There is an entirely different debate concerning standardized testing and merit that I will not address here, but the point is that there is a necessary distinction between who is and isn’t able to receive higher education.
In the U.S., education is free through secondary school, in accordance with the declaration. After that, a student has to apply for acceptance into a college or university, just as all of us CU students did. Here, a distinction is made on a basis of merit, which is also in accordance with the declaration. The question for us to consider, though, is whether the opportunity to receive higher education is actually “equally accessible to all,” as stated in the declaration.
Enrollment in college is essentially merit-based, as I stated above. But in the U.S., the education that gets you to the point of college applications is extremely important to ultimately having the GPA and test scores to get you in. Now, this is where the problem starts to emerge.
Not everyone in the U.S. receives the same primary education, which I am sure is not news to you. Quality of education is contingent upon the neighborhood the that school is in, which favors more affluent neighborhoods and districts over impoverished ones. Actually, one Denver-area teacher made the claim that there are two educational systems in the U.S.; one for the wealthy and one for the impoverished. Given this disparity in the education that gets one to college, is anyone actually saying that American higher education is “equally accessible to all?”
What we are seeing is not a merit-based system but a privileged system. Kids who are able to attend better schools tend to do better. They are nurtured by their families and schools and told to reach for the stars, and given not only the hope that they can follow their dreams, but the tools and skills to do so. For the impoverished, things are different. Here, families may not have as much time to spend with their kids, and their school system may be decrepit. What results is that, even if a kid from a poor family in a ragged school system outdoes a wealthier kid in a better school system, the wealthier kid is more likely to succeed.
So, wealthier kids make it to the point where they can go to college — and when you do get there, it’s expensive. The cost of tuition speaks for itself. It is a privilege to attend a four-year university without student loans, and securing affluence is next to impossible until those are paid off.
So, what does this all mean? So what if only some people are able to get a higher education? Well, our teachers, employers and parents tell us that a degree is necessary in order to boast credentials to pursue a higher purpose — whether that be a higher-paying job or access to a passion, like an academic field. In other words, a degree gives us opportunity. And when that opportunity is limited to affluent people, it means that America isn’t the land of opportunity that we have all been told it is.
Opportunity is social mobility, or the ability to make it out of one socio-economic class to another, more affluent one. If a degree signifies opportunity, then there are limitations to social mobility as well. And, if this is also true, America has a bona fide caste system with prohibitions on individuals leaving their caste, especially the poor.
Education is a measuring stick of an equitable society, and the U.S. isn’t doing so well in that regard. Instead, it is a measuring stick of privilege, “a product of wealth,” just as the man at the fountain argued. What we, those of us in higher education, must do is simple: use that power and privilege to make society more equitable, exercise some social responsibility and do our best to spread that opportunity to all corners of American society.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Grant Stringer at Grant.Stringer@colorado.edu.