Is access to higher education a right?

One of my favorite songs from the musical In The Heights is “96,000.”  The main character, Usnavi, discovers that someone in the neighborhood has won the lotto for $96,000.  The song is about what each character would do with all of that money ranging from moving out of the barrio to paying off debt to getting a new hair weave.  In all cases, $96K would completely change the life of the winner.

And as I was watching this video tonight it struck me.

$96,000 is not enough to pay for a Bachelor’s Degree at many universities and colleges in the USA.

Actually, many undergraduate degrees are twice this amount!  I know I am not the first person to point this out.

Yesterday Seth Odell tweeted,

tweet on higher education

An excellent question that sparked a lot of conversation including,

tweet on higher education as a right is education a righttweet is higher education a right answer

I guess we have to start at the definition of what a “right” is and if we look to the constitution or the Bill of Rights… well as Katie pointed out, neither document articulates a right to education.

But we have all seen the information released that graduating from college helps you earn more in your lifetime.  And most recently the numbers show that college educated individuals are more likely to be employed in general.

So if higher education is the numero uno ticket to long-term success… how can it not be a right?

Seth phrased his question well asking if “access” to higher education is a right.

I think there is a fundamental difference between the right to higher education and the right to access higher education.

And personally, I believe access to higher education should be a right.

Does this mean we should all get to go to Harvard?  No.  To me this means that you should have a choice of institutions to attend even if you were born in a low-income area, even if your parents aren’t able to afford an expensive education, even if you don’t win the lottery.

If access to higher education is being hindered by extremely high tuition costs, what does that say about the right to access higher ed?  Who is out there defending that right?  Or maybe I am out of line and it isn’t a right at all.

This is kind of a huge topic…

…and I will admit that I have not done extensive research on the lengthy debate of this subject.  And truthfully, I don’t care if you have either!  I’m very curious to find out what you think.  Let’s keep this conversation rolling.

About Mallory Wood

Mallory Wood is a Vermont-based higher ed marketing professional with a passion for social media, web video, and event production. View all posts by Mallory Wood

9 responses to “Is access to higher education a right?

  • Brian Fanning


    I’ll preface this by stating that I’m not well versed on the financial assistance that is available for low income students in other states, but I can tell you that New Jersey has a fairly strong Educational Opportunity Fund ( that has exactly this as their mission: make higher education accessible to those who may not have the means otherwise. Also, admissions and/or financial aid work isn’t in the scope of my expertise so I can’t really comment on how effective NJ’s EOF program is for either the students or institutions it services, however working at a public institution that prides itself on remaining financially accessible (relative to the region), I can tell you that there are schools out there that seek to be an option for students that may not have had either the opportunity or income to pursue education at other institutions. I’m very curious to see what similar programs might exist at other state levels.

    My personal belief is in line with yours: access to the opportunity for higher education is a right (don’t get me started about creating restrictions on who those rights should apply to) – one that shouldn’t have significant financial OR educational impedements.

    As to whether the actual education received itself OR the actual presence of the conferred diploma/degree translates into a better employment/income situation, that’s a whole different story.

    Looking forward to read what others have to say.

    • Mallory Wood

      Brian – Thank you for your insightful comments. I wonder if other states have programs similar to NJ and like you I’m curious of their effectiveness. At the very least, it is reassuring to hear there are champions out there for the student who may find it more difficult to access higher education.

  • Is access to higher education a right? « Marketing with Mallory | Education

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  • Laura

    “Education isn’t preparation for life; education is life itself.” – John Dewey

    I believe that education is right, and if we as a society have determined that “higher education” is the best route to obtain an education, then yes, access should therefore be a right as well. While there are other ways to educate oneself, a college degree seems to be the ticket to a better future – more job opportunities, higher salaries, more security.

    However, currently, it feels more like a privilege to attend college. Many factors play into whether or not an individual will be able to access higher education, ie. socioeconomic. Where you live and what school you attend certainly has an impact on your college preparedness. The rising cost of higher education is also an impeding factor for many. It is my belief that individuals should have the choice of whether or not to attend college. For many, making that choice never becomes an option – accessing higher education is out of their realm of possibility.

    I have more thoughts to share, but somewhat ironically, I have to get to class.

    • Mallory Wood

      Laura, your point “It is my belief that individuals should have the choice of whether or not to attend college. For many, making that choice never becomes an option…” is perfectly stated. I can’t agree more.

  • Eric Stoller

    Rights are generally governed by accepted societal ethics. In the case of education, I absolutely think that it is an ethical mandate for society to work towards an educated populace. Education is not about business or selling, those might be side effects, but the overall impact is that with education comes amazing benefits for the greater good. We’re ethically compelled to provide education for everyone.

  • woychickdesign

    Huge topic, indeed! Some would argue that everyone already has access – they just need to figure out how to make it happen. Circumstances have changed in the past 30 years from a widespread belief that higher education provides a public benefit to (it seems) a broad opinion that it only provides a private benefit. That’s affected all sorts of policy decisions. Personally I’m not one that believes “every man/woman/child for himself” is a great way to govern, but here we are.

    Another wrinkle in this discussion: In the current and future economy, how many college graduates do we need?

  • Nick DeNardis (@nickdenardis)

    Coming from an environment filled with disadvantaged students. Seeing first had their physical environment isn’t the most motivating and I would argue is only perpetuating the problem. Education is the only solution, both high school and higher education. The barrier to higher education is high, but it is still visible.

    It’s unfortunate this discussion even needs to happen. Of course higher education should be available to everyone without question. It feels like the same way as our dollar is inflating, so is education. This is ripping apart the “middle class” of education.

    I am no way arguing higher education is a right because if you don’t have the motivation to pursue a higher education you probably won’t make it through it on your own. Higher education isn’t for everyone and it has never been designed that way. The people with the drive to succeed will find a way to do it. As soon as there is a gate keeper to education though, the entire system will fall apart.

    Just my two cents and random thoughts.

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