Is There a Right to (Tuition-Free) Higher Ed?

Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, speaks during a campaign even
Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, speaks during a campaign event in Seattle, Washington, U.S., on Friday, March 25, 2016. More than halfway through a nomination race that she entered as the clear favorite, Hillary Clinton finds herself deadlocked with Sanders among Democrats. Photographer: Mike Kane/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Bernie Sanders is correct that higher education is a right, but he is fundamentally wrong about what that implies.

According to Sanders, public colleges and universities should provide universal, tuition-free education for all. This is a noble aspiration, especially for a country in which just over 30 percent of the population has a four-year college degree.

The right to higher education, Sanders says, is a basic entitlement owed to all, even those who can pay tuition. Ironically, for a politician driven by social ideals, this is an individualistic way of conceiving of rights. It assigns the right to each person regardless of his or her position in society.

Alternatively, rights are standards that empower more than entitle people. A right is not just something people have: It's a means of claiming or accessing something a person may not have. Rights always speak to the needs of the most marginalized.

A right to higher education doesn't mean that college has to be free for everyone, at public or private institutions. College has to be affordable precisely for those who cannot afford it.

This perspective is not new in international circles. Both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights emphasize that the right to higher education should be "equally accessible to all."

The right to higher education also requires that students, once admitted, have equal access to learning and academic resources. Wasn't that what students across the nation's campuses had in mind in recent months when they demanded racial justice?

Rights are not metaphysical goals; they arise out of concrete disparities, which are part and parcel of everyday political struggles. Sanders has misunderstood this, labeling the right to higher education an entitlement of the rich as much as of the poor. That's a simplistic and flawed depiction of higher education in America today.

The right to higher education invokes justice more than revolution: the capacity to study at an institution of higher learning without being discriminated against on the basis of wealth or identity. That may lack the zealous appeal of universal free tuition, but it should still mobilize those in the electorate who aspire to a society in which all people get a fair shot at a better life.