No one knows exactly how many students participated in the Million Student March protests on November 12, but it wasn’t anywhere near a million.
Numbers that don’t add up are a fitting reflection of the movement’s demands: “free” college tuition, cancellation of all student debt, and a $15-an-hour minimum wage for student workers.
In an interview on Fox News, the group’s organizer, Keely Mullen, described how the government could feasibly fund the group’s demands. Host Neil Cavuto and thousands of Internet commentators scorned her suggestion to tax the so-called “1 percent” up to 90 percent in the video clip that went viral. But debating the details of the movement’s implausible economics gives its proposals too much credit.
Here’s the real issue: The Million Student March fundamentally misunderstands the role of college education.
The Million Student March begins with the premise that a college education is a fundamental right. Therefore, it’s the government’s role to protect this “right” through funding imperatives outlined in the group’s Organizing Guide, which decries the “corporate structure” of colleges and universities that “shackles” them with student debt.
This premise is flawed.
The group’s grievance is valid only if students are forced to acquire debt against their will. But no college coerces its students to matriculate. Students are free to choose to attend a less-expensive option (such as community college or online education) or to forgo a college education altogether. Rather, they flock willingly to these supposed “bastions of corruption.”
Even though the economics of Mullen’s tuition plan are flawed, she might have a point about the government (aka taxpayers) paying for it — if it were a right. The U.S. government exists to secure our rights, so if a college education qualifies as one, then maybe Uncle Sam should pay the bill.
But it would be terrible if a college were a “right.”
If the right to a college education were enshrined in the Constitution or in the laws of the United States, then the entire higher education system would be based on a paradox.
A college education serves, in part, to teach students how to think, both critically and independently. However, government funding the higher education system naturally leads to government control over what those universities and colleges teach.
Unlike many of our peers who view higher education as an entitlement, students at my school, Hillsdale College, understand that their education is a voluntary undertaking and a calculated risk of time and money.
The college aims to expand the boundaries of our minds by exposing us to an array of arguments and disciplines. Hillsdale College President Edmund Fairfield described this mission in 1853, saying, “The process of education is continually cherishing an independence of thought that is close in alliance with civil liberty. Give freedom to mind, and you will not easily put chains to the body.”
Education, as Fairfield said, equips us with the tools to discern what is good, right, and true. To protect its independence, Hillsdale refuses to take any government funding — even indirectly in the form of student grants and loans.
This contrast highlights a sharp distinction in how the Million Student March protesters and my peers at Hillsdale define college education. Moreover, it accentuates the root issue of this nationwide debate. Everyone is arguing whether or not government should pay for this thing we all define differently; thus, we are talking past each other.
Instead of asking how much government should pay for higher education, we should be asking whether government should pay for education at all, and how the consequences of that decision affect us.
This chaos in higher education will continue until we college students recognize education as an opportunity — not a government handout.