It’s a common refrain from the left: “Everyone has a right to go to college,” or “Everyone has the right to an affordable college education.”
Bernie Sanders, the animated US Senator from Vermont, is perhaps the claim’s loudest proponent, insisting that “Everyone deserves the right to a good higher education if they choose to pursue it, no matter their income.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who proclaimed that “We have a moral obligation, an economic obligation, a political obligation, to cancel student loan debt,” doesn’t officially claim that higher education is a right. Her website instead declares “Rep. AOC believes that everyone has the right to an affordable, quality education - starting at pre-K and extending through post-secondary education.” (emphasis added)
This idea has made its way into mainstream American politics. The Biden administration has supported it implicitly by promoting two years of subsidized college for everyone in its now-tempered American Families Plan (which was reduced to $40 billion in federal grants to middle- and low-income students in the Build Back Better Act passed by the House).
A college degree opens many doors socially and economically; it's perfectly rational to want this opportunity to be available to everyone, regardless of background. Many are frustrated with the soaring cost of college in the United States. This is presumably why Sanders and others on the left, including Jill Stein and Elizabeth Warren (whose website calls college a “a basic need that should be available for free to everyone who wants to go”) insist that higher education is a right.
The Implications of Higher Education as a Right
But what would happen if the government tried to enact such a “right”? Consider how universities are currently run in the US. At the moment, with the notable exception of affirmative action programs, universities (especially private ones) mostly have control over whom they admit, setting their own standards for academic achievement, extracurricular activities, and application essays. And this makes sense; the university’s administrators, board, and president manage the university on behalf of those who own it, so they ought to decide who they will deal with and under what terms. But if higher education is considered a right, then how can they deny anyone admission? Wouldn’t doing so violate the applicant’s right? On the other hand, if those who run universities don’t get to set their prices, decide how much they spend, or limit whom they admit, doesn’t that violate their right to run their universities as they choose?
Further, in any scenario where the government subsidizes the cost of higher education (including student loan debt), it can only pay for that by taking money from taxpayers, many of whom did not themselves attend college. Of course, a person might wish to help others afford college by donating to schools or scholarship funds, but should he or she be forced to pay for such programs?
Positive and Negative Rights
How can we sort out these competing ideas about what is and isn’t a right? By examining the nature of each. First, the university administrators’ right to decide how the university should be run, and citizens’ right to decide what to do with their own money, are examples of property rights. These, in turn, are an example of classical, or negative, rights, as are all the rights protected by the founding documents of the United States (the rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness). The term “negative” derives from the fact that such rights impose only a negative obligation on others: the obligation not to interfere in the exercise of those rights.
By contrast, the supposed right to higher education is an example of a "positive right," which, in the words of Hungarian-American philosopher Tibor Machan (1939-2006), “require[s] that we be provided with goods or services at the expense of other persons, which can only be accomplished by systematic coercion.” A right to higher education would mean that people have a "right" to a service provided by others.
Rights must be absolute, otherwise they cannot function as principles on which to base a government or a society. But if rights contradict each other, then they are not absolute. As Machan notes, “If positive rights are valid, then negative rights cannot be, for the two are mutually contradictory.” Clearly, we cannot have both types of rights. So should we choose negative rights or positive ones?
Machan says that “the question is: which concept is the more plausible in the context of human nature, of how the issue of rights arose, and of the requirements of surviving and flourishing in a human community?” Let’s apply his three criteria to a fundamental (and relevant) negative right—the right to one’s property—as compared to the "positive right" to higher education.
Human Nature: Property is the product of a person’s effort, created by mental and/or physical work. We need property rights because, as Ayn Rand explained, “Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life.” People have to produce to survive, whether they live off the results of their effort directly, as in the case of subsistence farming, or indirectly, such as those of us who trade the values we produce to acquire what we want and need. So, we can see that property rights are consonant with human nature, since we must produce to survive. Higher education, on the other hand, can be useful for certain careers, but it is not necessitated by human nature.
Origin: Legal recognition of property rights goes back at least to the Magna Carta, but the philosopher who clarified, codified, and explained the traditional conception of property rights was John Locke, who argued that “every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his.”
The origin of the "positive right" to a college education, on the other hand, seems to go back to the United Nations's 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.” Though this doesn’t explicitly state that it should be free, others built on this premise. The United Nations’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, adopted in 1966, proclaimed higher education should be “equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education.” That covenant declares that these rights“derive from the inherent dignity of the human person.” Does a person’s inherent dignity really imply the need for a college education paid for by others?
Flourishing in society: Property rights are essential to thriving in a human community; without them, what stops people from taking whatever they want from others? And what incentive would anyone have to produce if the products of his efforts could be taken away from him at any time? If he could not even guarantee his own survival or personal flourishing by his work? Higher education, on the other hand, makes a person a more attractive candidate for many jobs, which is useful, but not essential to surviving or even thriving in a human community, as ultra-successful college dropouts such as Mark Zuckerberg demonstrate.
Clearly, then, property rights are consonant with human nature, they have a clear practical and philosophic origin, and they’re key to surviving and flourishing in a human community. The proposed right to higher education, by contrast, has no such basis with regard to human nature or origin, and can only claim to be useful to flourishing in society, not necessary. Further, "positive rights" would cause myriad problems if implemented.
The “Right” to Higher Education in Practice
Consider what the quality and content of education might look like in a society where college is considered a right. First, to make college free (or even “affordable”) for everyone would require the federal government to subsidize all or part of the costs of higher education. That alone introduces many problems, including the cost of government bureaucracy and the burden to taxpayers. Further, to avoid spending spiraling out of control, the federal government would likely implement a cap on what it’s willing to pay per student. This in turn would limit what universities could pay their staff, and what kind of facilities and events they could provide.
If the government funds education, it wields enormous influence on the contents of that education. Taxpayers could end up having to fund poor curricula, instead of being able to “vote with their dollars” for better schools via their or their children’s tuition. Indeed, government-run kindergarten through high schools demonstrate how poor curricula in the US tends to be. NPR reports that as many as 20 percent of high school graduates in the US are functionally illiterate, meaning that they may be able to recognize words or letters, but they cannot comprehend what they read well enough, for example, to fill out a job application. Would you pay to send your children to a school where only 80 percent of the graduates can read well enough to apply for a job?
The other key aspect to subsidizing education is the taxpayers who fund it. If a person chooses to donate to a particular university, he does so because he thinks that university does valuable work that’s worth supporting. But when the government takes his money to spend on higher education, that money may go toward teaching ideas he doesn’t support. As Thomas Jefferson noted, “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical.” If you do not believe in Christianity, or critical race theory, or communism, or any other idea you care to mention, you should not be forced to pay others to teach it to young people. But that is exactly what taxes subsidizing education would do (and does, in countries with subsidized higher education such as the UK and Germany). In the words of Ayn Rand, “it is viciously wrong to force an individual to pay for the teaching of ideas diametrically opposed to his own; it is a profound violation of his rights.”
What if, as AOC and others proclaim, you don’t have a right to a free education, but merely an affordable one? Leaving aside the difficulties of determining what “affordable” means, the right to an affordable education means subsidizing part of most students’ education–which means less coercion, not none. In other words, the clashing rights claims are still a problem, just a less severe one.
These are just a few of the specific problems caused by the contradictory nature of the alleged positive right to higher education. By contrast, a truly free market for education, without government grants, subsidies, or influence in the curriculum, would enable individuals to choose which universities to support and which to avoid, as well as potentially lowering prices by cutting out the cost of government bureaucracy.
Respecting negative rights not only avoids the problems introduced by "positive rights," it also makes higher education better and potentially cheaper—just by giving people the freedom to choose.