Animated Illustration by Chris Gateley / Mustang News

The right to college

By Hunter White

Hunter White is a history junior and Mustang News columnist. The views expressed in this column do not reflect the viewpoints and editorial coverage of Mustang News.

A college education serves two purposes in our society. It is, in its most capitalistic sense, an investment. It provides a path to achieve some advanced career requiring specific training and knowledge, as well as some modicum of insurance against a life lived in alleyways and street corners where Gucci-adorned teenagers avoid eye contact as they stroll into the glowing mecca of an Apple store; a tragic circumstance which American society provides no guarantees against. Secondly, it provides an example of the supposedly classless society the social contract of our government proposes in which all men are created equal. You are not born a doctor, you have to earn it. Of course, I would not claim that we have ever come remotely close to achieving that goal, but being that it is among the first things we Americans ever wrote about ourselves, it is no great leap of logic that the laws of our land should strive for such an ideal: a society in which every man is judged by the contents of their character, not their father’s bank account.

That is why student’s ability to attend college should not depend in any part on their or their parents’ ability to financially afford it. College should be tuition-free.

At the height of White America’s greatness, 8.8 million Americans attended college or job training programs through a massive government welfare program. This influx of educated and specialized professionals into the workforce has been hailed by historians and economists as a major reason for the extended period of economic growth America sustained through the ‘50s and ‘60s. This period saw the rise of the American middle class and the birth of the great American ego as the “leaders of the free world.” Ignoring Jim Crow, this is almost certainly that “Great America” we are currently trying to remake. This period of Pax-Americana was created and sustained by the democratization and spread of higher education across classes. Any attempt to reach such heights again should rely on the expansion of advanced education, not the reduction of it.

Beyond a purely economic issue though, is one of America’s ideals. Just as Thomas Paine argued that the son of a king is not necessarily going to be a good leader, neither is the son of a real estate executive guaranteed to be able to use his bought-and-paid-for Harvard education to lead the office of American Innovation. College is a filter by which the supposedly best and brightest are meant to be thrust into roles most deserving of their talents. When we add a secondary filter, such as inherited capital, those best and brightest tend to look very similar. I am in no way implying that you, my most beautiful and intelligent reader, are in any way undeserving of your placement here. I am stating the simple fact that, whether due to issues of race, gender or class, the promise of an equal society has never been truly realized in America. It is currently harder for the children of the poor to attend college than the children of the wealthy. By offering higher education on a purely merit-based system, as opposed to a financial one, we can move just a bit closer to that city on a hill we so hope to attain.

The proposed strength of a democratic society is its ability to best utilize the brainpower of all its citizens, as opposed to only that of a small ruling class. To shape our society in such a way that only a select few — lucky enough to be spawned by wealthy loins — can receive the benefits and access provided by higher education is the first step to some ludicrous and wealthy family of oligarchs usurping our democratic processes. Oh, shit.

Return to Rationality: Is free education about ethics or economics?

By Brandon Bartlett

Brandon Bartlett is a philosophy junior and Mustang News columnist. The views expressed in this column do not reflect the viewpoints and editorial coverage of Mustang News.

There are two reasons to make any policy: for the principle and for practice. A principled policy is one that is advocated for on moral grounds (such as the abolition of slavery), while a practical policy is advocated for on empirical grounds (such as the exact rate of sales taxes). The former is a discussion of ethics, the latter of economics.

Of the supporters of tuition-free college, some are motivated by principle and others by practice.

To those who advocate for free education in practice, I have no problem. For while I currently disagree with their economics, my mind could easily be changed by a new economic study.

However, I do take issue with those who advocate for free college tuition in principle and it is to such a group that this article is addressed.

Their argument is often constructed as thus:
1. People have a right to education.
2. Society has an obligation to fulfill the rights of its citizens.
Therefore, society has an obligation to pay for education for its citizens.

Surprisingly, I actually agree with the first premise; it is the second premise with which I take issue.

Generally speaking, there are two conceptions for the way rights are to operate: restrictively and prescriptively. Take the right to life as our paradigm case: a restrictive right to life would dictate that I am obligated to not kill you nor do something that immediately leads to your death. A prescriptive right to life would dictate that I am obligated to do what is necessary to keep you alive (for instance, provide food, shelter and healthcare if you could not afford such on your own).

I believe in a restrictive right to education: that it is immoral to, for instance, pass a law disallowing women from pursuing higher education. However, some principled advocates believe in a prescriptive right to education, which is why they believe society is obligated to provide tuition-free education.

The problem is that this view entails what I would hold to be an absurdity: because a society is composed of individuals, it is the individual that must fulfill the obligations of society, at least to their full capacity.

Thus, if education is a prescriptive right, each individual is obligated to fulfill said right to whatever ability they are capable. Not fulfilling an obligation is, by definition, immoral. Therefore, whenever you spend $10 at the movie theater, money that you have the capacity to give toward someone’s education, you are not fulfilling your obligation and are acting immorally.

However, given the fact that it seems morally permissible to catch the new Star Wars movie every once in a while, we must reject the prescriptive right
to education.

For this reason, any argument resting on the moral obligation to provide education for the individual is untenable. However, this fully leaves open the conversation for practical consideration.

If you are embroiled in a conversation about free education, do not ask for philosophy, but for fact. This is a matter for economics to sort out and we ought to be humble enough to accept whatever science determines.

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