The first question that must be asked when discussing rights and whether higher education is a right is how do we derive rights in the first place? The answer to this question lies in the creation of a criterion that can assess the universal qualities that all humans need for a society to be just. The late Harvard Professor, John Rawls, provided such a criterion in 1971, which was termed Justice as Fairness. The criterion held that when humans are put in an original position of equality and behind a veil of ignorance, a theory of justice would arise that would take into account the need for impartiality in the derivation of principles. This setting would put people in a bargaining position where they would have to design a world in which their outcomes within the society would be unpredictable; thus a system of economic redistribution, equality of opportunity, and basic human rights would be required to ensure individuals would have a fair chance to live healthy and productive lives. Therefore, higher education is crucial to ensuring the satisfaction of such a criterion in this day in age, because such an education, which must be paid for by a governmental guarantor of rights, would satisfy the need for economic redistribution to mend social inequities; create a system of equality of opportunity through the universal investment in everyone’s human capital; and help preserve democratic systems through an increase in the bargaining power of the middle class. Such a service to individuals cannot just be treated as a privilege due to its instrumental importance for an equitable society.
Education is a crucial part of mending the economic inequality that is pervading our society today. According to a study by the Institute for Policy Studies, the richest 10% of American families own 75% of all the wealth created and 84.5% of all financial assets in the United States. This inequality, according to a 2015 literature review by the International Monetary Fund, is harmful to economic growth because it creates gaps in mobility and access to public goods. Due to this severe economic drag, the United States’ welfare state is not sufficient enough to satisfy the criterion of Justice as Fairness, which means that the government is unjust for not ensuring the opportunities that people need. Higher education can satisfy this problem through an upgrade in individual’s skills, which can increase the economic share of the middle class. David Autor of MIT showed this in an empirical study on education and economic inequality and found that education is crucial to filling the skills gap that is responsible for current inequality levels. Due to this high level of volatility in US society it is clear that higher education must be treated as a right in order to amend the circumstances that are inimical to the creation of a just society.
In addition to satisfying the need for a fair system of economic redistribution, treating higher education as a right can increase equality of opportunity in the United States, through the abatement unequal access by the poor and middle class. According to an article by CNN Money in 2012, student debt has reached 1.2 trillion dollars, which is an 84% increase since the great recession. This student debt has disproportionately affected the socioeconomically disadvantaged, because according to the Washington Post in May of 2015 the poor do not have access to the large pools of savings that allow more financially well off Americans to send their children to college. This essentially means that without universal access to higher education, a system of equality of opportunity cannot be attained, which is due to the fact that education is every American needs to attain a sustainable quality of life. Two of the ways in which the US government can provide of this right is through the making of public colleges debt free and the creation of federally supported college savings accounts for socioeconomically disadvantaged students. For example, former candidate for Ohio governor, Ed Fitzgerald, proposed to create savings accounts that would be supported by taxpayers throughout a child’s life until getting to college. In addition to this, public colleges can be made debt free, because the Department of Education estimates that tuition for these universities only total at 67 billion dollars. This means that not only is it an imperative for education to provided, but it is also feasible to do so.
The government has an obligation to treat higher education as a right not only because it is feasible to do so, but also because it is important for the preservation of democratic systems. According to a study by Jamele Rigolini, of the World Bank, a stronger middle class allows for a stronger quality of democratic governance. This is due to the fact that the middle class has historically, through greater bargaining power, been able to force change on governmental systems, which are more apt to represent the richest members of society. The study also furthers that the countries that have better middle classes also have stronger social policies, which is a crucial aspect of providing social justice. So, because higher education is an increasingly needed service for the middle class to maintain their bargaining power, it is a fundamental right in the status quo.
When deriving rights it is clear that Justice as Fairness is a criterion that must be used to evaluate rights in an impartial way. Through this criterion, higher education must be treated as a right for 3 reasons. The first is that it is necessary for the sake of redistribution. The second is that equality of opportunity can only be found by treating higher education as a right. Finally higher education is crucial to preserving the bargaining power of the middle class, which is tantamount to a liberal society. This is why higher education can only seeing its prime effects through a rights based approach and not a privilege-based one.