Reaching For A Higher Education

During the 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney spoke at a rally in Virginia where he described an ideal America as a place “where everyone has a fair shot. They [Americans] get as much education as they can afford and with their time they’re able to get, and if they have a willingness to work hard and the right values, they ought to be able to provide for their family and have a shot of realizing their dreams” (Huffington Post). Many would say that the issue with Romney’s campaign was that he was out of touch with the average U.S. household, but most people would agree with the underlying belief behind his statement-apart from the word “afford”-which is that education is the sole product and reward of personal responsibility. After all, the alarmingly un-alarming truth is that the U.S. still has some of the highest high school dropout rates among OECD countries despite being one of the most democratic and economically developed, according to The New York Times, which makes the accomplishment of completing an education in the “Land of Opportunity” all the more a testament to personal responsibility.

But, as graduation approaches and Boston College’s Class of 2014 reflects on how far our hard work and dedication has brought us, we are also becoming increasingly aware that the road to higher education was not just a matter of personal dedication-we also used the resources available to us. And, regardless of socioeconomic background, those resources were only made accessible in two ways-our parents or the government. For this reason, I believe that the emphasis on personal responsibility has subconsciously clouded our views and legislative priorities regarding education.

First, higher education within the criminal justice system has long been a point of contention. After all, according to the Department of Justice, states spend more per capita on prisoners than on school children. For example, Michigan pays about $34,000 for every inmate and about $11,000 for every student, and New York spends about $56,000 per inmate and $16,000 per student. These statistics are initially shocking and make you wonder where the funds are going, but these figures probably include expenses such as security, medical services, food, legal fees, etc., which are vital to running the facilities. What I find to be more of an issue is the emphasis on private and public programs aimed at giving higher education to prisoners-not because education should be withheld from anyone, but because of the rationale behind it, which is that the solution to lowering crime in the long run is to help individuals once they’re incarcerated and not before.

In a piece for Forbes entitled “How Educating Prisoners Pays Off,” the author argues that educating prisoners is vital because they are most likely to be college dropouts and will thus need a college degree to make it in today’s job market, and it then details how a particular program in Ithaca, N.Y. from Cornell University gives prisoners an Ivy League education at relatively little cost. “[Cornell Prison Education Program] CPEP is supported by a $180,000-a-year grant from the Sunshine Lady Foundation, which was founded by Doris Buffett, sister of investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett. Cornell waives tuition, provides office space, and makes a modest financial contribution. Given the relatively low cost-roughly $1,800 per CPEP student-and manifold benefits, it’s hard to fathom why there isn’t a national, fully funded prison education program in every facility,” the article reads. The dedication of the Cornell professors who largely volunteer their time is admirable, and the inmates who receive this education must appreciate it, but they must also wonder why there wasn’t a national program like this for high school students from low-income areas in every state when they needed it the most-before they dropped out of high school. If all high school students in the U.S. knew that they would have guaranteed, free-tuition at a state college, they would have access to opportunities that could drastically change their lives for the better.

When personal responsibility becomes the ruling view behind legislation, people are unfairly punished. Scholarships are wonderful, but it’s not enough to cover tuition. In addition, they don’t offer a guarantee. Why can’t the Land of Opportunity be like Germany, France, Denmark, or Scotland, all of which have now become havens for EU students since university is free to all residents of the EU member states?

This is not a blue vs. red argument-no administration has been truly effective in addressing this issue. I understand that there are fiscal difficulties with providing free university, but I believe that this is a fundamental issue that cannot be reduced to “work hard, have the right values, and get as much education as you can afford,” because the road to higher education for everyone in this country has been a journey of reaching beyond expectations based on socioeconomic stereotypes that could range from allegations of nepotism to allegations of being the product affirmative action, and our own personal doubts. Our achievements are ours, but we all needed help to reach them, so let us not keep it out of reach for others.

Editor’s Note: The views presented in this column are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of The Heights.