At a rally in Virginia, Mitt Romney said that he wanted to make sure that America remains “a place of opportunity,” where “everyone has a fair shot” and “get[s] as much education as they can afford.”
Now, we’re not a political blog. And we really, really don’t want to be one. A political blog latches on to every bit of phrasing and twists and turns it around to try to reveal some hidden truth or underlying theme about a candidate, a party, an organization, whatever. The knee-jerk reaction to Romney’s phrasing is easy: “What do you mean as much as they can afford? Are you saying the financially privileged deserve better educations than other Americans?”
That’s a boring conversation. Is Romney’s phrasing a subtle hint at an underlying bias toward the wealthy? Who cares? The last thing I want to do is contribute to the always petty conversation around election season.
But we are (or at least we’d like to think we are) a blog about ideas. And at the root of over-analyzing Romney’s statement is an interesting discussion: How much education should be free, and how much should you have to pay for?
First of all, education is never free. It can’t be. Even if, in the future, our current concepts of classrooms, degrees, and homework are completely unrecognizable, students will always need two things: equipment (books, computers, art supplies, etc.) and teachers (professors, coaches, etc.). Even if the students of the future consume all of their education through all-purpose interactive tablets, someone needs to buy the tablets. Even if the students of the future are all taught by very life-like robots, someone needs to pay the programmers and engineers making robots. Because teachers will always need salaries and equipment will always need to be purchased, someone always needs to pay for education, whether parents, taxpayers, grant donors, or the students themselves.
So when we say “free” what we really need to be saying is “accessible.” Should everyone have the same access to education? Well, sure. That should be an easy answer. That’s only what’s fair, right? No sane person would claim that the very poor don’t deserve to be just as informed as anybody else. That’s the reason why it’s important to make sure resources like libraries and public schools allow anyone to access them freely. We can’t claim to be a democratic society and prevent accessibility of information.
But at the same time, we can’t really claim that all education is created equal. Obviously, some schools are going to be better than other schools. A lot of that depends on the quality of the teachers. A lot of that depends on the quality of the administrators. But most of it, unfortunately, has to do with money. Schools with more money will be able to pay teachers better, provide better tools for their students, fund more extracurricular activities, and provide more out-of-the-classroom experiences. So while we should certainly always strive to make education be as universally accessible as possible, the sad fact is that it won’t be.
Let’s take it back to Romney’s words, specifically, the word “afford.” Naturally, when we think about affording something, we think about money, but that’s actually a secondary definition. The primary, according to Merriam-Webster anyway, is “to manage [or] to bear without serious detriment.” So “affording” education means more than just paying for it. It means being able to dedicate the time and energy necessary to achieve your goals.
Again, I’m not here to nitpick word choice of a person who’s on camera 24/7, I’m just making a point. An education is always going to be an investment. Even if you didn’t have to pay for four years of undergraduate studies, you still were dedicating four years of your life toward making your future opportunities better. That’s a cost in itself. And that’s a cost that not everyone will be able to handle.
Getting a good education is achieved through hard work and good resources. That’s always going to take money and energy. The more we can help one another have access to quality education, the better. But there will always be a personal cost to a student: long-term, like loans, or short-term, like choosing to be a full-time student instead of having a job. We can (and should) keep the cost as low as possible, but a student needs to be willing to make that personal investment.