Higher Education: A Right or a Privilege?

By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute/EPI International

A few weeks ago, I was featured in a Canadian Press article about McGill University’s privatization of its MBA program. Last year, McGill announced that it would raise its MBA tuition 900 percent, from a little over $3,000 to $29,500 a year. This massive increase has raised the ire of many in Canada, including the Ministry of Education in Quebec, who denounced the tactic. It has initiated a dialogue about the role of public education in Canada, educational equity, and the authority of institutions to set their own tuition fees on “special” programs.

In response to McGill’s move, the Quebec Ministry of Education announced this week a $2 million punitive fine against the University aimed at forcing McGill to rescind their policy.

This comes on the back of a new campaign by the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) called “Education is a Right.”

But is it?

Elementary and secondary education has always been held as a public right in western democracies. In both Canada and the US, public K-12 is supported by property taxes (with a few exceptions) and is largely seen as a “right.” However, education past the age of 16, in most jurisdictions, is not considered compulsory. Therefore, postsecondary education has never been compulsory in Canada or the US.

In recent years, there has been an increased push to make some form of postsecondary education standard fare for students. In the late 1990s, President Clinton pushed for and won the passing of a tax legislation that essentially made the tuition and fee costs at two-year public institutions free for students (as long as they have a tax liability, since the legislation is not refundable). But affordability is a different issue than compulsory education. Students have a choice. Even in California, where fees at institutions in the California Community College System have been impressively affordable ($312/year), higher education is not mandated.

There is a difference between compulsory and making something a “right” as opposed to a privilege. I believe the nature of CFS’ argument is sound: all citizens should be able to embrace the opportunity of postsecondary education, with barriers of cost removed from the equation. That stated, I disagree that higher education, in any form, is a “right.” It isn’t. It is an opportunity that should be provided by government entities. Legislators must work diligently to remove barriers to access for all students, especially those from low-income backgrounds. But to suggest that postsecondary education is a right—similar to that of secondary, is wrong.

A free and (arguably) equitable elementary and secondary system, supported mostly by provincial and state governments, provides a foundation for future growth by individuals. At some point, the government must pass on some of the responsibility for education and training to the individuals themselves. While there are public/societal benefits to postsecondary education attainment (and certainly the education that precedes it), there are most certainly private benefits that individuals receive, including increased salaries, health and retirement benefits, as well as other opportunities that present themselves to those with a higher education such as increased disposable income and investment opportunities, let alone the social aspects of higher knowledge and life satisfaction. All of these are substantiated by a significant research pool.

Because there is a public benefit/return to higher education, it is appropriate for local, provincial/state, and federal governments to invest in the postsecondary education for economic and social reasons. But the private benefit also suggests there should be a private investment, which we make with tuition and fee charges, as well as opportunity cost and other factors that are often ignored.

Suggesting postsecondary education is a “right” is tantamount to saying the government should support it 100 percent, because that’s what governments do: they support the “rights” of citizens. Like the right for students with disabilities to have an appropriate education in the public system. Or for low-income students to receive free or reduced price lunches in schools. The right to a public education (K-12) is also supported by legislation, and is provided free of charge to everyone. People have the ability to choose other pathways, such as private schools, but these are not supported (in most cases) by the government, which represents the taxpayer.

Postsecondary education does not fall into the category of a right, and it should not. Government should remain solid in its support of expanding higher education opportunities for all by reducing the barriers of cost and geography, and ensuring that the education provided at that level is both appropriate and of a high quality.

But higher education is a privilege that Canada and the US provide to its people; a privilege that all citizens have an opportunity to take advantage of. It should not be confused with a right.

To that end, the McGill issue, where the institution has privatized its MBA program, is a peculiar one. McGill is one of Canada’s, and arguably North America’s, better institutions of higher education. The Montreal-based university, founded in 1821, enrolls 13,000 undergrads and 3,500 graduate students each year. It is relatively selective, with an average SAT of 1,400 and 30 ACT score (for US students). If that isn’t enough, McGill, together with Harvard, played the first North American-style football game back in 1874. So there. It’s a good place.

The Desautels Faculty of Management’s MBA program is very selective. The average applicants have a GMAT of 645, are 30 years of age, and have 73 months of work experience. This is critical information to the argument of whether the privatization of the MBA program restricts access.

The Quebec government has under-supported higher education for decades. I wrote about this in a study EPI conducted for the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation back in 2005. The Quebec approach was to freeze tuition and fees at institutions. Even now, Quebecers pay less than $2,000/year (about 3-4 times that amount for out-of-province students, and about $15,000 for US students; still a bargain in many respects). But tuition freezes only work when the government increases its subsidy and financial support of institutions. Quebec did not do that over the years, and institutions have been fighting with their ability to keep quality education for an expanding market.

Thus, McGill decided to milk a cash cow, so to speak. They had done this previously with their Executive MBA program, which costs $72,000/year (and will rise to $78,000 in 2011-12). For comparison, Duke’s Global Executive MBA Program will cost $146,600 in 2011-12. These are expensive because they can be. The schools and programs are “name” brands and executives will pay to be associated with them.

So McGill is cashing in on its name and is now increasing the cost of its MBA to raise funds for the institution. On this level, it makes sense. The government isn’t coming up with the necessary funds and the institution has the ability to raise revenues through tuition.

But what about the issue of access?

Normally, I, for one, would be rallying heavily on the access issue if any institution created such fiscal policy. The difference here is that the McGill MBA program is not an access program. One does not just walk into the program. The bar is very high for admissions. It has been for a long time. Thus, in a discussion of access, this is important because typical access students won’t be attending McGill’s MBA at any time in the future.

The access issue is more an issue of undergraduate education. However, it is certainly reasonable to understand that a low-income student who has excelled in his or her undergraduate studies, would have a problem paying for the MBA program. To that end, McGill does say they provide an average of $12,000 in financial aid per MBA student. That would reduce the average tuition to $17,000. Still a lot, but the ROI for an MBA would seemingly be much higher than a BA. Thus, the student would have a greater ability to pay off the corresponding debt.

I don’t necessarily like what McGill has done, but it is understandable in light of past government fiscal policies. It is not an access issue, as critics, including the Quebec government, suggest. It’s just unfortunate that it comes down to this: the push for more private support for higher education when public support subsides.

I’m not picking a fight with the CFS or any other group that is supportive of student rights. Not at all. I’m with them as they push for tuition containment, for more student aid, and for ensuring that higher education is open for all, not just to some.

But saying that postsecondary education is a right?

That’s wrong.

2 thoughts on “Higher Education: A Right or a Privilege?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.