Education–a right and a responsibility

written by Love Isn’t Enough contributor Jennifer; originally posted at Mixed Race America

Let me first say that I am entirely biased. I am a university professor. I have spent A LOT of time in classrooms, as a student and now as a teacher. I obviously believe in education, formal education, as a good and as a goal that everyone should strive for.

Let me also say that I know of many successful people who did not attend college or university–people in my own family who, for a variety of reasons, some chosen and some not, never attended a four-year institution of higher learning. So I’m certainly not saying that I believe everyone must attend college and that a university diploma is the sign of success or intelligence.

But I do believe that higher education should be made available for all people–it should be a possibility that people can feel they can strive for and achieve, whether intellectually or financially.

And it is this last part that has me worried. Especially at my alma mater, the University of California at Santa Barbara. Because like all other UC campuses, its students are now subject to a 32% tuition increase–in real money it means students next year will be paying over $10,000 a year for a public school education. It is one of the largest tuition increases the UC regents have ever made in a single year. Students next year will pay 3x in tuition what students paid a decade ago and 6x what I and my fellow students were paying in the early 1990s.

I grew up in a pretty middle-class family–my parents were typical immigrants in the sense of their frugality and their belief that they should work hard for the betterment of the next generation. While I had dreams of going to a private school, I knew that the reality of our financial situation meant that a UC or Cal State education would be my only real option. And I was really fine with that because I knew that California had one of the best public school systems in the nation, if not the world. And I knew that I could work summers and during breaks to save money for my tuition or at least for incidentals (like food and rent) that my parents may not be able to afford. So I graduated from college debt free, which allowed me to think about pursuing PhD work because I didn’t have the pressure of getting a high paying job straight out of school to pay off my debts and then the worry about incurring more debts in grad school (for the record, I am still paying off my grad student loans).

I mention all of this because I worry especially about kids who resemble my own profile–kids of immigrant parents whose one good option–a UC school–seems to be slipping past them. Or kids who will feel an additional pressure to go into majors that will hopefully provide a pipeline into high paying/lucrative jobs, but these may not be career options or even educational options they want to pursue–they may want to be English majors or Art History majors but are being pressured to go into science and math and technology driven majors in the hopes of securing a high paying job to pay back the many loans they have incurred. Or really bright students may decide that studying abroad or thinking about a PhD just isn’t in their future. Or worst of all, there will be kids who simply won’t be able to go to college because they just can’t afford it.

Which means that the diversity–in terms of race but most especially in terms of class will become diminished in the UC system. It means that the gap between those who have and those who have not will grow. It means that we are saying education–a college education–is reserved for an elite who can afford it.

I don’t have any cheerful words to end this post with. I wish I did. I only know that we have to do something–that this education is both a right and a responsibility–that everyone has the right to pursue a higher ed degree and that we have a responsibility to make that happen for all students. How to make this happen? I don’t know. But we owe it to ourselves and our future to figure this out, NOW.

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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