What’s Left?: A Right, Not a Privilege

During any given week, there are dozens of trivial things that I will complain about as a college student. Whether it be the lack of desirable options at the dining hall, or having to wake up for my “way too early” 9:20 a.m. class, I seem to be regularly irritated by minor problems. Here is the truth: my complaints regarding my university pale in comparison to the majority of Americans. Why do I say this? Because as I work towards my $65,000 a semester liberal arts degree, the majority of American households either struggle to, or outright cannot afford to, send their children to college. As a nation that is a leader in the ever-changing, ultra-competitive global market, it is imperative that we reconsider our national position on higher education. This past week, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo took steps to address this dilemma, and his message was loud and clear: education is a right, not a privilege.

New York State reached a budget agreement on Friday, and it had a notable addition: the Excelsior Scholarship. Proposed by Governor Cuomo, this scholarship will allocate funds to pay for the tuition of any New Yorker attending an in-state community college or four-year university, granted that their family income is less than $100,000 a year now, and $125,000 in 2019. With the passing of this budget, New York is set to become the first state to offer a tuition-free public college program.

I, along with millions of fellow New Yorkers, applaud Governor Cuomo for initiating this groundbreaking step towards providing more accessible education for the middle and working classes. This legislation signals that free public college is no longer a radical idea tossed around by the far left. Rather, it is a concrete idea that will continue to gain momentum across the United States, and for good reason. As college students, we are cognizant of the immense burden that tuition can place on students and their families. Collectively, Americans owe more than $1.4 trillion in student loan debt, with more than 44 million Americans possessing student loan debt. The average 2016 college graduate left their school $37,000 in debt. Rather than being free to go out into the world and pursue careers, the majority of our nation’s college graduates will leave college engulfed by student debt. These students are quite literally held back by the institutions that are intended to give them the tools to succeed and prosper in the workforce. What is perhaps worse, however, is that students are often forced to forgo receiving a college education because of their family’s financial restrictions. This, to me, sounds more like the American nightmare than the American dream.

A  college degree today is the equivalent of a high school degree in the middle of the 20th century. Whereas Americans could once obtain a standard-income job with solely a high school diploma, they are now struggling to even find a job with a college degree. Those without a college degree are at a tremendous disadvantage. Americans have long had the right to attend a free public high school; now it is time for our country to take steps towards providing free public college. Governor Cuomo emphasized this point, saying, “Today, college is what high school was – it should always be an option even if you can’t afford it.” As a nation, we should embrace the concept of providing affordable higher education. By doing so, we would undoubtedly expand our middle class, subsequently strengthening our economy and our democracy. Education is the key to not only individual success, but to national prosperity.

While I am proud of Governor Cuomo and my home state, New York’s action alone is not enough. I implore other states, both blue and red, to follow in New York’s footsteps and take the necessary steps to provide affordable and accessible public higher education for all citizens. Back in January, Bernie Sanders joined Governor Cuomo in announcing New York’s plan. Sanders said, “Today what Gov. Cuomo is proposing is a revolutionary idea for higher education. And it’s an idea that is going to reverberate not only throughout the state of New York, but throughout this country.” It is my sincere hope that Sanders’ words ring true, so that every student in this nation will have the opportunity to pursue higher education. We are a nation that prides itself on ensuring equal rights for all citizens. That is exactly what education should be: a right for all Americans.