The title of this article says it all: education should be a constitutionally protected right. What might surprise you is that I am making this claim as a moderate conservative. I base my assertion off of the unusual premise that education was constitutionally protected when the Constitution was ratified, but hidden in another right: property.

I like to use the model of a farmer. A farmer had their tools protected under the due process clause of 5th Amendment: their property could not be taken unless through lawful action. Inherent in those farming tools was the knowledge of how to use them, which could be passed down to children, friends, apprentices, and so on.

Various thinkers influencing the framers of the Constitution wrote extensively on property rights, and an emphasis on property has emerged as critical to the American way of life. Through property, an individual or group of individuals can generate income, thus affording themselves the basic building blocks of freedom. A farmer who grows their own merchandise can sell or trade those items for necessities and is independent of others. This is in contrast to a welfare-type system, where individuals are totally dependent on and at the mercy of the entity (usually the government) that is providing them their basic necessities. The farmer is much, much freer.

In today’s world, the farming model still exists, but it is a much smaller portion of our economy. The number of farmers as a percentage of the total population has decreased radically, as our main business has shifted from manufacturing to service. As a result, more people fit the accountant model: an individual whose main form of generating income is not in their property, but rather, their brain. It is the skills and the education that they have received and nothing more. Lawyers, financial analysts, marketers, artists, and others in the service industry rely mainly on their brain. A modern business communications textbook I recently read backs up this assertion: the best asset the modern American has is the knowledge that is in their head.

But what would constitutionally protecting education actually achieve, and what would it look like? Unlike property, education can’t be taken away once it is gained, so the idea of “protecting” it is more confusing. And even though property is constitutionally protected, that doesn’t mean that everyone is issued property by the government when they are born. Conception of education as a constitutional right, therefore, must take a different form from property: a right to have, rather than a right to not be taken away.

Education up to a high school diploma is already provided for free to every American citizen. Nevertheless, this is still problematic. Only having a high school education is quickly becoming insufficient in the modern economy. Those with a high school education and below have much higher unemployment rates, poverty rates, crime rates, and so on. And worse, having little education means that their children are likely to have little education as well, helping to create the cycle of poverty.

Making education a constitutional right is the first important step toward rectifying this problem. It will officially and legally acknowledge that there is a societal necessity to provide everyone who wants to learn a marketable skill the means to obtain the required education. At this point many liberals are probably saying “duh,” and many conservatives are saying, “how will we pay for this?”

Paying for it is actually a much more serious question than many people think. Many European nations have free higher education and aren’t exactly doing well economically. There is a steep price for high government debt.

However, there is also a steep price for a large mass of uneducated Americans. This is not only a social price, but an economic one as well. Those who cannot provide for themselves require government assistance through welfare. A gainfully employed individual not only no longer takes government assistance, they start contributing through taxes and their higher economic activity (they can buy more stuff).

Thus, making education a constitutionally protected right would mandate that the government provide higher education to anyone who wants it, similarly to how the government has to provide a lawyer to anyone who is being charged with a crime. The private market will still exist, just as there are private lawyers, but the government doesn’t pay for those.

Similarly, one cannot expect the government to pay for a private college education for everyone. However, providing every American with the right to take out an interest-free loan, or loan with an interest rate at the level of inflation, for the purpose of going to the public college in their state seems much more reasonable. I’m also in support of providing Americans who can demonstrate need, such as being a single parent, a small stipend for books and some living expenses, as long as they work a reasonable amount of work-study.

There are some obstacles still left. Tuition has been increasing much faster than inflation, the increased attendance would put a strain on current university infrastructure, and so on. Additionally, there are many students who graduate from high school who are not ready to attend college level courses, and would require a year of remedial courses to catch up. Finally, the above suggestions do little to solve the high school dropout problem in America.

At least higher education would now be attainable for everyone who wanted it. And community colleges have near-guaranteed acceptance, with two-year degrees that fast-track individuals to jobs that pay much, much better than those available to those who have a high school diploma or lower. Health care jobs, bookkeeping, and technical jobs such as electricians and plumbers are all well-paying and can be attained with only two years of college. Community colleges also have courses designed to prepare an individual for college-level math and writing at traditional four-year institutions.

The cost to the taxpayer would be minimal over the long term, and in fact, could end up lowering the amount the government ultimately spends on welfare and other social programs. The majority of the cost of college, tuition, would actually be a loan, payments of which could automatically be taken from tax refunds. Small amounts of government money would be used to pay for books and the stipend, but this would quickly be recouped once the person graduates, starts earning an income, and paying taxes. Those who drop out of college do pose a potential problem, but currently declaring bankruptcy cannot eliminate student debt. Proving the numbers behind this assertion will be difficult, but I’m strongly considering making it my thesis.

The social benefits are obvious and almost don’t have to be stated. The key is that this opportunity should be open to anyone of any age who doesn’t have a college degree. And I believe it all starts by reframing higher education as necessary for protecting other freedoms and making it a constitutional right.

Stascavage is a member of the class of 2018.

  • Alumni ’90

    In 1965 there was a IMF conference on developing economies and ‘island nations’ At this conference a few different development models were discussed. Two presenters were the Prime Minister of Jamaica and recently deceased Le Kuan Yew of Singapore. At this time both countries boasted GDP per capita of approximately $550. Today, Singapore’s GDP per capita is $55k (higher than the USA), while Jamaica’s is $5k. Jamaica’s development policy in 1965 centered around its natural resources, farming and tourism potential. Singapore had no natural resources, and little tourism potential at that time. So instead, Singapore embarked on a defining economic policy anchored by uncompromising standards for a
    universally accessible, top-flight public education system – astutely
    identifying human capital as Singapore’s key competitive advantage.

    There is no question that spending on education yields tremendous societal payback. However, the bigger question today is perhaps is the system of education we are all accustomed to the right one to invest in going forward? President Obama’s plan for free community college strikes me more as a band-aid on a broken system (failing K-12 programs) rather than a vision to the future. Rather we should invest more in existing K-12 and create more innovative and creative educational programs for high school graduates who have interests that do not require a 4 year college degree. Its increasingly a misconception to believe that a 4 year degree “trains” young people to perform high paying jobs… Instead, as any professional will readily confess we all learned on the job rather than learning anything in college that really prepared us to perform our specific jobs in adult life. I think President Roth is right in emphasizing “liberal learning” but this really means continual adaptability, curiosity and creativity. The winners of the 21st century will be those countries that embrace a vision that motivates young people to remain life long learners.